Finding Leo After Dark

By Dennis Mammana

March 12, 2020 4 min read

Week of March 15-21, 2020

Some of my fondest childhood memories come from school field trips to Philadelphia's Fels Planetarium.

Oh, how I looked forward to those magical times under the starry dome. They exposed me to a universe I never would have experienced from behind those rickety old wooden desks at Centennial Elementary School in Easton, Pennsylvania.

I remember one program in which I learned to find my way around the night sky using only the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper, of course, is one of the brightest and most easily recognized star groupings in the Northern Hemisphere and, right now after dark, we can see it balancing on its "handle" low in the northeastern sky.

"Simply connect its seven stars with imaginary lines", the planetarium lecturer explained, "and you'll see a bowl and a long, bent handle." This was especially fun for me since my favorite game at the time was "connect the dots."

I couldn't wait for darkness to fall so I could check it out myself. And I remember racing outdoors after dinner that night to connect the Dipper's "dots" in the real sky. Sure enough, there was the shape of a bowl and a bent handle, just like he said!

I also recall the lecturer explaining that if we could fill the Dipper's bowl with water and poke a hole in its base, the water would drip onto the back of Leo, the lion.

Pretty easy! But how would I recognize Leo when I found it? By the backward question mark that forms the lion's head, with the bright star Regulus at its base.

He even connected those "dots" to show how — with a lot of imagination — one might trace a rough outline of a lion. The backward question mark formed its head, and the triangle of stars on the other end formed its ... well ... other end.

"This is too cool!" I thought. But wait a minute. It seemed to me that if I turned the image around, it was actually easier to see a mouse. That backward question mark now traced the mouse's long, curving tail, and the triangle formed his head and pointy nose.

Of course, there is no actual place called "Leo" or "The Big Dipper," just a random sprinkling of stars in our sky that we humans like to trace into celestial pictures. And it doesn't matter what pictures we imagine there — as long as we get out and give it a shot.

The point is that the sky is a marvelous canvas for us to enjoy. It's remarkable how seemingly unimportant events can ignite a child's imagination and, sometimes, even lead to a lifetime passion. In fact, much of what I discovered under that magical planetarium dome some 50+ years ago I now pass on to others who gaze skyward — both in this column and in my live presentations under the stars.

So, if you've got any children around, take them outside, far from the city lights, and introduce them to the stars. Whether or not they seem interested, you'll be exposing them to one of nature's great experiences.

You just never know what lifelong passions you might unexpectedly ignite!

 As a child, I learned to find my way around the night sky using only the Big Dipper.
As a child, I learned to find my way around the night sky using only the Big Dipper.

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