Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sirius, the Dogstar

Canis Major & Minor & Lepus

Sirius is, of course, interesting in many ways.  

The Egyptians associated it with Isis and used its appearance to start their calendar and time the annual flooding of the Nile.  

People used to think that during the summer, when the sun and Sirius are in the sky together, the combined brightness of the two makes it hotter.  (Nice idea, but the fact that Sirius cannot be seen during the day shows how much dimmer than the sun it is, as seen from Earth.)  Because Sirius is the "Dog Star", these hot days are called the "dog days". 

Then there is the story of the Dogon, who supposedly knew of the existence of the white dwarf Sirius B, which is invisible to the naked eye.  This is often presented as "evidence" that they were in contact with the Nommo, aliens from that very star system!  Unsurprisingly, there are problems with this claim.

That's not why I love this star so much, though.  I took a course in introductory astronomy in the 10th grade through a local community college, and part of this course required us to learn to recognize the constellations and bright stars, both in the sky and on maps.  I really dove into this part, especially since I remembered how constellations were used to navigate and pass on stories.  

On a typical night, I would spend at least a couple of hours outside looking at the stars.  The sky was dark when the moon wasn't near full, and it gradually became apparent that meteors are not at all uncommon.  On one foggy night (a few years later, when I was home from university), there were red and green lights that at first looked like they might be from boats on the canal, only they didn't converge on the horizon.  After all other possibilities were eliminated, it was clear that these were the Northern Lights -- at thirty degrees north latitude!  My mother and I drove onto the newly constructed bridge; from its highest point (about 70 feet above ground level), the lights could be seen to be independent of anything happening on the land below.   The upshot of all this was that I became quite familiar with the stars, even coming to feel that they were friends.

By 11th grade I had decided to enter college as an "early admission" student, at least if I could do it on scholarship.  As with a lot of things I've done, the main reason was to prove (to myself, at least) that I really could do it.  So right about this time of year, I found myself visiting the University of Alabama to compete for a fellowship through the Computer-Based Honors Program.  My mother drove me up to Tuscaloosa and stayed in a hotel, but I spent the night in Byrd Hall, then home of the Mallet Assembly and the cheapest dorm on campus.  I had not thought to bring sheets or a pillow, but I didn't really need them; I slept in my coat with the next day's clothes as a pillow.  Still, I was somewhat overwhelmed and lonely as I looked out the window -- where I saw an unmistakable bright star, mostly blue-white but with flashes of every other color, come to keep me company.

Since then I've been much farther from home -- two and a half months in Denmark, a year in Japan, a year and a half in Germany, then Maryland, Texas, and now West Virginia.  I've had nights that were much colder, more uncomfortable, and lonelier by far than that night in Tuscaloosa.  Throughout all these changes and difficulties, I have always found it comforting to see the same moon and same stars.  Especially Sirius.

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