The Illusions of Stars

Hey, Sky Fans! It’s Thursday! Maybe I’m a little too excited about that, but around here it means maybe ordering takeout for dinner, so I probably don’t have to cook. That alone is something to get excited about, even at 8:30 in the morning. It’s interesting those patterns we fall into, takeout on Thursday. Well, either way, I have my coffee to the right, my copy of The Moon, Mars, and Venus: A Concise Guide in Colour to my left, and Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” on the hi-fi. The day is off to a good start. Thanks for stopping by.

The other night, when I was out talking to my neighbors, I got to thinking about the groupings of stars; the patterns and asterisms we see. I got thinking about the question of what keeps me looking up. It goes so much deeper than “That’s a blue giant star.” One of the most interesting things to me is the asterisms themselves. Sure, the patterns are interesting, “That’s a dragon. That’s a telescope. That’s the front half of a bull.” That’s not what I mean.

What connects me to them, though, is simply that these patterns exist to begin with. People are incredibly good at picking out patterns where none exist. How many times have you seen people on the Today Show (I prefer Live with Kelly) with a bunch of potato chips that look like former presidents, or members of the Beatles? There’s even a word for seeing patterns where none exist, pareidolia.

So, when we look up at  the sky, we see stars and decide they’re a group, even though it’s all just an optical illusion;  a trick of perspective. They’re not related, they’re all just in the same general direction as we see them from here on Earth. If we were in some other neighborhood of the galaxy, the stars of the Northern Cross or the kite of Boötes would be arranged completely differently if we were able to see them at all. I love to wonder what asterisms someone living in those other, far-away places are seeing. An exception to this being unrelated is Ursa Major, whose stars appear to be moving together in a group that’s called, and I love this, the Ursa Major Moving Group.

The Winter Circle and Orion make for a great example of this illusion. All of the Circle’s stars are among the 17 brightest in the night sky, except for Castor, if you include Castor at all (I like to), all of these stars are fairly close by, except Rigel, Orion’s right foot. Aldebaran’s the farthest of the bunch at about 65 light years. These stars can be used to check of moments in a person’s life. Sirius is about the distance of the lifetime of a third-grader. Capella’s light has been traveling for about the length of my lifetime. Aldebaran, the life of a retiree.

Rigel, though, is very far away, around 700 light years. In fact, and this is the part that always gets me, all of Orion’s bright stars are much farther than the Winter Circle’s stars, which look to be right next door to Orion. Rigel is the intersection between the nearby Winter Circle stars and far-off Orion. In fact, Alnilam, the middle star in Orion’s belt, is among the farthest stars we can see with the naked eye. Imagine how much light these stars must be churning out, all the time, for billions of years, in order for them to seem to be so bright alongside much nearer stars.

Winter Circle & Orion stars with distances (screen from Stellarium)
Winter Circle & Orion stars with distances (screen from Stellarium)

I love the poetry. This crossing of the scientific, which doesn’t care what we see, with the human, which does. I love how stars that are all so far away can be right alongside stars that are so close. Yet, to us, they’re all a group, connected, together. In a strange way, I guess, that helps me feel connected to them, or maybe, connected to the people who spent their nights looking up, seeing these patterns, and passing them along for thousands and thousands of years.

That night as I turned to come inside after talking to my neighbors, I stopped and looked up at Capella again, bright, orange, and welcoming. I wondered what was going on there. Maybe someone there is seeing our Sun, from that same distance, and wondering, too. If you can tonight, maybe have a look, too. Who knows what we’ll see.

Clear skies everyone!


4 thoughts on “The Illusions of Stars

  1. Such poetry, “These stars can be used to check of moments in a person’s life. Sirius is about the distance of the lifetime of a third-grader.” It’s hard for oneself not to feel like an astronaut when reading your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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