Monday, March 28, 2011

Sirius Mysteries

No Dog Days Yet
Sirius the Dog Star is the brightest star in the nighttime sky. It has fascinated people around the globe and plays a prominent role in cultural myths. To the Egyptians it was worshipped as the "King of Suns," who based their calendars on its movements. The rising and setting of Sirius told the Egyptians when to plant, when to harvest, and when the Nile typically flooded. The phrase "Dog Days of Summer" originates in the ancient Egypt. During the hottest part of summer, the Sun stands high in the sky. And even though they could not see it, the Egyptians knew that Sirius was also nearby the Sun during the day. They claimed that the presence and brilliance of Sirius added to the intensity of the Sun's heat.

In Hindu mythology, Sirius was a hunter. This hunter was the father of 27 daughters represented in the 27 phases of the moon.

The Finnish poet Topelius wrote a poem hypothesizing that two stars fell in love and became one - he turned out to be correct Sirius has a small white dwarf companion circling it, Sirius B
which orbits Sirius every 50 years.

Two controversies surround Sirius. Ancient Greek texts claim that Sirius is a bright red star. In actuality Sirius is shimmering white. Did Sirius change colors over the years? Did the Greeks get this wrong? Was Sirius lower in the sky and therefore appear more red? We may never know.

The second controversy involves the mythology that the Dogon people of West Africa had about Sirius. According to French anthropologists who first met this tribe, the Dogon had a special reverence for Sirius and developed many unique rituals around this bright star. The Dogon legends say that aliens from Sirius visited their people 5,000 years ago. They perform a celebration every 50 years in honor of their alien visitors. Why every 50 years? The aliens told them that where they come from they have 2 suns, a smaller one that orbits the larger one every 50 years. It turns out that modern astronomy proved the existence of a smaller companion star (Sirius B) that orbits the main star (Sirius A) every... wait for it... 50 years! So the question still remains, were the Dogon really visited by aliens from Sirius or were they just given inside information from aliens from France?

Look for Sirius in the southwestern sky this March and April.

Sirius Aliens?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Leo the Lion

Spring has sprung in Cincinnati and we can finally focus on the constellations of spring.

The first of the major spring constellations, Leo is recognizable by the six stars which form his head shaped like a backwards question mark - also called the sickle or fishhook. The bright star Regulus is the dot in the question mark and designates this King of the Beasts. The back end of Leo is marked by a triangle of stars - the farthest east being his tail, Denebola.

In Greek mythology, Leo may represent the Nemean Lion which ravaged the Mediterranean countryside long ago. The boldest, bravest hunters were sent out to kill Leo but faced a nearly immortal enemy. Leo had an impenetrable hide. When the hunters shot arrows at the lion, they just bounced off. When they tried stabbing him with the sharpest swords, no cuts could be made.

Hercules comes on the scene to kill the lion as the first of his twelve labors. This is where he shows that he has some brains (unlike the dimmer Orion). Hercules stalks after the killer beast and, at the most opportune moment, leaps onto Leo’s back wrestling him about the neck. Using his mighty muscles, Hercules squeezes and squeezes until Leo the Lion is strangled to death.

But Hercules isn’t all muscles. If you ever see pictures drawn of Hercules, you may notice his un-stylish clothing. After killing the lion, Hercules decided to keep Leo’s hide as a bullet proof jacket. Now he could walk down the street - and people would be shooting arrows at him or throwing knives - without fear. It was grrrrrr-reat.

Question from a smart second grader in the planetarium: “If Leo’s hide could not be cut, how did Hercules make it into a suit?”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Canis Major, the Big Dog

Orion's hunting companion in the sky, Canis Major or the Big Dog, follows along to the left of the great hunter. Canis Major's brightest star, Sirius, is also the brightest star we can see from Earth. The constellation is extremely easy to find. If you connect the dots of the three stars in Orion's belt and continue that line to the left, you will run into Sirius, the Dog Star.

When Orion was placed up in the sky only to be trampled by the Bull each night (with Seven Sister's on its back), he asked the gods if he could bring his favorite hunting dogs with him to fend off the bull. Unfortunately for him, the dogs don't seem to be helping. The Little Dog (Canis Minor) is chasing after a Unicorn (the constellation Monoceros), while the Big Dog is barking after a little bunny rabbit (the constellation Lepus the Hare) at Orion's feet.

Canis Major's others stars include Mirzam, Wezen, Aludra, Adhara, and Furud - all Arabic names. Mirzam is "The Announcer" since it rises before Sirius crests the evening horizon. But I like Wezen which means "Weight". An old Arab legend says that this star seems heavy in that it rises from the horizon with great difficulty.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

STAR GAZER Programs for March

I’m back from Miami Florida where I filmed another eight episodes for the iconic astronomy program – STAR GAZER. This is the show you see late at night on PBS where a guy stands on a light beam and tells you, “What’s Up,” in the sky. Well, for the third month, that guy has been me! I can hardly believe it - but now I’m able to share my passion for the night sky on 1-minute and 5-minute segments aired on over 90 TV stations around the globe. If you’d like to watch them, they’re on YouTube. I wrote Finding Direction in the Night Sky – where I get to tell my classic myth jokes. Check them out, “Like” them, and post comments please:

March 7-13 The Biggest Full Moon in 18 Years

March 14-20 Finding Direction in the Night Sky

March 21-27 Venus and the Moon at Dawn

March 28-April 3 Arcturus and Saturn Join the Moon and Pleiades

You can download all of your favorite Star Gazer programs at:

If you don’t get Star Gazer on local your PBS station – let them know about it. The program is free for anyone to broadcast. Spread the word!