The Stars from A Different Viewpoint

“Thank you, Maria, nice job showing us why the Doppler method had such a hard time finding exoplanets. Next up, Jeremy. You’re not going to talk about black holes, are you?”

“No, ma’am, my subject today is astrometry, but that’s useful for both exoplanets and black holes. I have to be careful when I say the word because it sounds so much like astronomy but they’re different things. It helped when I looked the words up. Turns out that ‘astronomy‘ means ‘naming stars‘ but ‘astrometry‘ means ‘measuring‘ them. Not weighing one or any of that, just measuring accurately where that star is in the sky at a certain moment. Everyone on Earth has the sky above. In the days before city life and city lights brought their eyes down, cultures all over the world were doing astronomy and astrometry. Professional astronomers generally use Greek and Arabic names, but that’s Eurocentrism and it got silly.”

<voice from the back> “Like how?”

“The Greeks couldn’t name constellations in the southern hemisphere’s skies because they never saw those stars. Polynesian navigators and Indigenous Australians saw them. Those cultures had their own perfectly good constellations. Did official Astronomy ask any of those people? Of course not, so we’ve got contrived designations like The Microscope and The Air Pump. Some of you know that I’m doing a research project with Professor Begaye to correlate constellations from different cultures. I’ve found some surprises.”

<voice from the back> “Like what?”

“Practically everyone in the northern hemisphere has a special image for the Pole Star and the stars close to it. Europeans picked out Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. For us Navajos the same stars make up The Northern Fire in the sky’s dome like the fire in our traditional domed hogan homes. Staying close to the Northern Fire we see two human figures, a woman and a man. One surprise for me was that the woman’s most prominent stars are the same ones the Greeks chose for Cassiopeia, also a female. The man’s image includes many of the same stars that Europeans call Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Did you know that the word ‘Artic‘ comes from the Greek word ‘arktos‘ which means ‘bear‘? Anyway, further out there’s a winter constellation containing three bright stars in a straight line plus a few more that could be shoulders and knees.”

<voice from the back> “Orion!”

“Mm-hm. We have almost exactly the same constellation. It’s also a hunter, except that the Greeks picture the three stars as his belt and we say it’s the quiver for his arrows. Right in front of the hunter are—”

<voice from the back> “The Pleaides!”

“But for us they’re Dilyehe, the Planting Stars. When they go below the horizon it’s time to plant corn. Which gets me to astrometry. The stars and constellations have always been clocks and calendars for the world’s cultures. Typically they compare the position of the Sun or certain stars with special structures.”

<voice from the back> “Like Stonehenge and the Pyramids!”

“There’s claims and doubts about both of those. People have searched out apparent special locations, like ‘This doorway and that window were placed to show a certain star rising on Midsummers Eve,’ but without explicit markings there’s no way to be sure it wasn’t just accidental. Besides, both structures were built with huge stone blocks, a real challenge to place accurately enough to pick out just one star on one day. We Navajos don’t build structures to track special times. We use mountains.”

<voice from the back> “What, you move mountains around?”

“No, we honor and respect the natural landscape for its beauty. What we do is find the special places that help the mountains and other landmarks tell us what time of year it is. My favorite example is the Double Sunset.”

<voice from the back> “Can’t have two!”

“Yes, you can, if the mountains are sharp and stand close to one another. On the right day of the year, the Sun sets behind one mountain, then peeks for just a minute through the cleft between the two. You just have to know where to stand to see that.”

~ Rich Olcott