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The Queen and the Lizard
Week of Sept. 14-20, 2014
When leading my popular night sky tours, I frequently encounter stargazers who are frustrated that they cannot easily see the constellations; so many have been led to believe that ancient sky watchers somehow saw lavish pictures in the sky and wonder: "Why can't I?"
My answer is simple: "Because there are none. Only stars." In fact, a former colleague used to say that constellations look no more like their namesakes than the George Washington Bridge looks like the father of our country.
And it's true. The ancients saw the same stars as we, and they simply used them to represent animals, objects and people in their storytelling.
But stare at the stars long enough and you will begin to find recognizable patterns; maybe not the bears and flying horses and serpents depicted in the constellation maps, but patterns nonetheless. These we call asterisms — star figures that actually look like something familiar.
Some of my favorites to spot are geometrical figures and letters of the alphabet. While these aren't particularly plentiful, there is one that is easily visible on late September evenings in the north-northeastern part of the sky. Its name is Cassiopeia.
Cassiopeia is the star grouping known to the ancient Greeks as an Ethiopian queen She was said to have been so obsessed with her own beauty that, when the gods placed her in the heavens, they put her in the north so she'd revolve daily about the North Celestial Pole and spend half of her time upside down.
The ancient Persians, however, saw its stars as a kneeling camel, while some in the Inuit culture of Canada and Greenland knew it as Pituaq, a lamp-stand. Some see the stars of this region as the throne on which the Queen sits.
Maybe I just don't have much imagination; to me, it appears simply as a "W."
But not always. You see, Cassiopeia is one of those constellations that, as it revolves about the North Star during the night — and throughout the year — appears as four different figures. Right now, of course, it appears as a tilted "W". When it's on its side it can look like an "E" or even a "3." And when it's high above the North Star, it appears as an "M."
Just above and to its east lies another "W." It appears almost like a miniature version of Cassiopeia, but it's actually the northern side of the constellation Lacerta, the lizard. You'll need a dark moonless sky to see it, since it contains no bright stars.
Lacerta is one of seven relatively obscure Northern Hemisphere star groupings created and introduced by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Hevelius created Lacerta to enclose the stars of such a tiny area of the sky that no other constellation would fit it. Some think that he may have been inspired by the ancient Chinese who saw this celestial region as a Flying Serpent.
If you've got a good dark sky this week, you should be able to trace the outline of a lizard. But the five stars on its far left-hand side ... well, they seem to form a figure I think of as Cassiopeia-Lite!
Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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