Why we turn stars into constellations
“There isn’t a dinosaur constellation?” I asked, as I looked up at the stars shining in the dark.
Moments I had driven through Dinosaur in Colorado earlier. As darkness fell around my car, I thought that I had seen a sauropod through the driver’s side windows. I laughed at myself, feeling stupid for seeing dinosaurs when there were none. Then, I thought about the power of suggestion.
But it turned out that I wasn’t being silly. I was part of a human tradition that goes back millennia. Daniel Brown associate professor in science communication and astronomy at Nottingham Trent University in England. He says the night sky is “an ideal canvas” that viewers can interpret and find visualizations of what is important to them. “This is how we normally would start referring to constellations.”
But constellations aren’t just a sketch of every individual’s fanciful ideas. The way the stars are scattered across the sky invites people to see certain patterns . Many cultures have found that despite seeing the sky from different angles, they can identify similar groups of stars in remarkably similar ways. These parallels and differences are a reflection of the astronomical dynamic that plays out over the night sky as well as the values, mindsets, and beliefs of those who gaze up at it.
One constellation, two stories
Constellations were long used as maps to navigate , canvases and calendars for storytelling, seasonal changes and charts that can be used to convey knowledge and meaning.
” Until recently, humans didn’t have written languages. Language was communicated orally,” says Duane Hmacher associate professor of cultural and astronomy at University of Melbourne, Australia. “But the human brain evolved to be capable of remembering enormous amounts of information. Associating a place to a memory is one way that this is done, which is the method loci –, which, he explains includes the stars.
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Cultural memories are preserved by passing on knowledge about the constellations. Today, researchers have noticed a pattern: Many of the brightest stars are grouped together in strikingly similar constellations across cultures that historically had no known contact with each other. Western stargazers may be familiar with some of these star groups, such as Orion, Orion, Pleiades, the Southern Cross, and the Big Dipper.
These star groups draw stargazers from both sides of the hemispheres because of their brightness and proximity in the night sky. The researchers used a mathematical model to systematically group stars by their prominence and proximity, and compare those groupings against constellations from 27 different cultures around the world. This experiment tested a principle that governs human visual perception: the Gestalt law of proximity. It states that objects close together are perceived as unified groupings, regardless of how distinct they may be individually. In a paper published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, the University of Melbourne experts found that those perception principles likely explain why so many different cultures have grouped the same stars together into constellations.
But the similarities don’t end at what stars people visually group together. Humans have often used those pinpricks to map familiar images and stories. Even though they are influenced more by cultural contexts than the characteristics of stars, those stories are often strikingly identical.
For example, says Hamacher, who is an author on the Psychological Science paper, the male figure of Orion is often seen as a man or men pursuing a group of girls or women, whom the ancient Greeks called the Pleiades. Between them and Orion is a V-shaped group of stars called the Hyades. He says that cultural interpretations of this guardian constellation can be subtle. In the Greek version, the Hyades is depicted as Taurus the bull who prevents Orion reaching the girls. Some Australian Aboriginal traditions depict Orion as a womanizer who falls for the sisters, but their older sibling blocks him.
In many versions of the story, details of the pursuit and defense reflect star motions and dynamics. Because of the Earth’s rotation, these constellations move across the sky throughout the night, with Orion appearing to chase the Pleiades. Some Aboriginal cultures see Orion as upside-down with the red of the star Betelgeuse in his right hand as fire magic that the warrior creates to battle the elder sister, Hamacher says. The red star Aldebaran, which is often referred to as the red eye or bull in Greek mythology, is about to kick sand into his face. The fire magic flickers and grows as they face-off, reflecting how Betelgeuse, which is a variable star, dims and brightens over 400 days.
It is also important to consider the time period in which people have created stories about shapes in space. Brown states that many of the constellations seen from the Northern Hemisphere by Western cultures are mythical creatures and stories that are based on Greek mythology. These constellations were first described in an anthropology on constellation stories, written in the third century BCE. However, many others were likely to have been identified long before then. Thousands of years later, Western explorers into the Southern Hemisphere documented the patterns they saw in the stars on their travels to include more technical tools, particularly instruments for navigation, like a sextant or a compass.
” There are many things that are more closely associated with the Age of Discovery,” Brown said. “That’s not surprising because our cultural group started to explore the Southern Hemisphere at a time when all of these clocks and things would have been far more prominent.”
But Brown claims that the Western explorers failed to consider the star groups that had been named thousands of years ago in the Southern Hemisphere’s night sky by people who lived there, with very different interpretations.
“This explains why I stress that the Western and Greek constellations are only one way these patterns can be understood,” Brown says. Listening to how people interpret the patterns in the stars can help you understand aspects of your culture and what is important to you.
Hamacher is working with his colleagues to discover what constellations people create on their own. They present a simulated night sky to their audience with stars in fake positions. He says that modern viewers can connect the dots to create shapes. It reflects their culture, geography, and culture. Hamacher states, “You’re unlikely to find many Australians who see a squirrel among the stars, and Americans who don’t see a koala.”
Constellations without stars
Stars aren’t the only thing visible in the night sky, Hamacher adds: There are also nebulae planets and the moon. In some areas of the world, the night skies get dark enough to see dark voids in the Milky Way.
In Southern Hemisphere, these spaces are often traced into dark constellations. The continent is an ideal place to see some the darkest night skies because it is less humid than other parts of the globe.
Some cultures also see similar patterns within dark constellations. Hamacher states that Aboriginal cultures see an emu within the dark space of Milky Way between Sagittarius and the Southern Cross. Some people in South America also see a large, flightless bird called a “rhea”
Some stellar patterns are only visible at certain times of year. Others, which linger near the poles and are visible all year, can be seen all year. The emu is visible in Australia at night, when they are building their nests and laying eggs. Hamacher says that the seasonal appearances of the dark emu constellation served as a harvest calendar, since people would often go out to forage the eggs.
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Light pollution can also influence how people see the stars. Today, the artificial bulbs that illuminate the night also interfere with starlight, washing out the Milky Way and all but the brightest stars for millions of residents in urban, suburban, and adjacent areas.
” But they don’t disappear completely. I just need to look into my Stellarium app,” Brown says, referencing one app to help users identify constellations. “We still have access to and knowledge about the sky. We interact with the sky in a completely new way .”
Constellation apps offer users access to night sky information from around the world. As they look at the night sky, users can see the different cultural interpretations of the patterns.
” You can learn so much about other cultures by looking up at the sky. Brown says that you can instantly get in touch with something that someone in the Amazon could see, or that somebody might have seen while building the pyramids.” “That’s our shared heritage .”
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