I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Southern Cross

I have always been interested in the path of the stars through the night sky. There is something that feels inherently immense and awe-inspiring, to see the stars shine down at me. They are unimaginably distant, yet their presence reaches me so many light-years away, and fills my thoughts with distant worlds.

Growing up in the 60’s I felt like the space race was MY race. Living in the science fact and fiction that was my daily junior high and high school consciousness, I made my way through the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, culminating during my graduation year, in Neil Armstrong’s famous “One small step…” The year before, 1968, was the year Stanley Kubrick released “A Space Odyssey, 2001." A bit of calculating and I realized that when 2001 finally did roll around, I would be 50. At 17 years old it was a distant future I could hardly relate to, but it seemed like too much of a coincidence. I made my plans right there and then to spend my 50th birthday on the moon.  I would go exploring craters in a rental moon buggy and bounce around in my space suit in the 1/6th lunar gravity.  Afterwards, I would retire to one of the tourist hotels that, I was sure, would be there by then.

Well, that plan never quite worked out, did it? Still, I've never lost the kinship I feel when I gaze at the magnificent display of the night sky.

I've watched the constellation Orion march across the peak behind my house on chill winter nights, when the sky was so clear and the stars so bright and close. As night wore on and the world spun on its axis, the arc of his feet perfectly matched the silhouette of the rocky crest.

I remember picking my way through a maze of logging roads one starry night during a fire season in the Kettle Range. It was before the days of GPS and one of the rare occasions I was alone in the fire truck. Looking for a reported lightning strike, I stopped at every clearing in the forest that afforded a view of the sky to relocate the North Star, trying desperately not to get too lost.

On a long night sail down the west coast of Florida with Joann and a few new friends, I navigated a 45’ sailboat by the stars, picking one to steer by that was on my compass heading, until at last the earth rotated it out of line and I picked another star to take its place off the bow.

One thing I have never seen is the Southern Cross, the southern hemisphere’s companion to the Big Dipper and the North Star. The Southern Cross has been guiding mariners for thousands of years around the seas south of the equator. Last night, standing in front of my apartment here in South Africa, with the help of a star finder program on my laptop I confirmed that what I was looking at really was the Southern Cross. A lopsided kite, its tail always points close enough to the South Pole to be a sailor’s best friend and constant nighttime companion. When I found it, I was surprised by how high in the sky it was.

What was even more surprising was something that almost made me dizzy. It was rotating in the wrong direction! I am so used to the stars wheeling to the left in the northern sky that I wasn’t ready, the next time I went outside, to find that it had rotated to the right! Clockwise! That, of course led me to the uncomfortable conclusion that clocks must have been invented south of the equator. In the north our sky rotates counterclockwise. If clocks had been invented in the north, wouldn’t they have been fashioned to match the northern rotation and the sky at home be said to rotate clockwise? Was I missing something?

Actually, I was missing something. Before the first clock was the sundial. The sundial kept track of time by marking the passage of the sun’s shadow. It was a shadow that moved in the opposite direction of the sun. Thus clockwise began as an opposite. I have to say, I was mighty relieved. The dizzy spells have passed and everything is right between heaven and earth again…

One star finder program that I like to use is called “Stellarium", www.stellarium.org . One of the things I like about it is that it is free. After you download the program, you can enter your location by clicking on a globe of the earth. A map of the stars in the sky at your time and location appears. You can turn on or off terrain, atmosphere, polar or azimuth coordinates, constellations and nebulas. You can speed up time and watch the stars really dance to the “music of the spheres”.

1 comment:

  1. Why do the words, "When you see the Southern Cross for the first time..." keep dancing through my head? Glad you worked out the clockwise/counter-clockwise thing. For a moment I thought it was another inadaquate calculation thrust upon us by the right-handers.