Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star ...

By Dennis Mammana

January 2, 2020 4 min read

Week of Jan. 5-11, 2020

It began as a five-verse poem called "The Star" that appeared in the 1806 publication "Rhymes for the Nursery." More than three decades later, this poem by Ann and Jane Taylor was set to music — a 1761 French folk tune that, coincidentally, seemed to fit perfectly:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are!

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky.

We've all grown up singing this magical song and believing that stars actually twinkle. But do they? Our childhood beliefs are often at odds with reality, and this is a perfect case in point.

Twinkling — or, more scientifically, "scintillation"— originates not with the stars themselves but with the air through which their light must travel before reaching our eyes. We've all seen this effect on a hot summer day, when our view of a terrestrial scene over a sizzling roadway or barbeque is distorted by rising heat waves. Similarly, a star's light distorts thousands of times each second, as it travels from the still vacuum of space into our thick, turbulent atmosphere — especially when appearing low in the sky.

Right now, the most dramatic example of this appears low in the east-southeastern sky after dark with the brightest star in all the heavens: Sirius, the Dog Star, lying just beneath a line formed by the three equally bright "belt" stars of Orion, the hunter.

Watch Sirius for more than a few seconds and you'll discover that it doesn't just appear to twinkle wildly; it fires off colorful sparks that often prompt calls to observatories and emergency personnel. The effect is even more spectacular when viewed through binoculars or a telescope thrown slightly out of focus.

But this is a perfectly natural phenomenon, at least to those who peer skyward more than once every year or so. Since a star's white color is actually a blending of every color of the spectrum, and each is bent rapidly in different directions at different times by moving air currents, Sirius appears as a colorful celestial sparkler.

It was this very spectacle that led author Martha E. Martin to describe its appearance in her 1907 classic book, "The Friendly Stars".

"He comes richly dight in many colors, twinkling fast and changing with each motion from tints of ruby to sapphire and emerald and amethyst. As he rises higher and higher in the sky he gains composure and his beams now sparkle like the most brilliant diamond — not a pure white, but slightly tinged with iridescence."

Yes, twinkling stars have always been a magical part of our night sky and were the inspiration for that timeless poem that we learned as a children's song long ago. But what if "The Star" had been written not in the 19th century but more recently?

Well, in our highly technical world, you can be sure that someone has already thought of this; in fact, a more 21st century version is often attributed to John Raymond Carson and goes like this:

Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific,

Fain would I fathom thy nature specific!

Loftily poised above the capacious,

Closest resembling a gem carbonaceous.

Hah! Who says romance is dead!

 Sirius appears as a colorful celestial sparkler.
Sirius appears as a colorful celestial sparkler.

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