AMATEUR NATURALIST

Amateur Naturalist: The Dog Star

Posted March 11, 2012, at 3:48 p.m.
Sirius
Courtesy of NASA, H.E. Bond and E. Nelan (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.); M. Barstow and M. Burleigh (University of Leicester, U.K.); and J.B. Holberg (University of Arizona)
Sirius

You know Orion always comes up sideways. Throwing his leg up over the Dixmont hills he strides into the evening sky and by about 11 p.m. in winter you can see his dog behind him, too, with legs outstretched and a large bright star in its shoulder.

Sirius, the star is called, which is the Latin form of a Greek word that means “scorching.” Arab astronomers called it al-Shi’ra, the same basic word, meaning “the shining one.” These names make perfect literal sense. Sirius is the brightest star we see besides the sun. It’s nicknamed the Dog Star because it’s the lead star in Canis Major, the Big Dog. It gives August’s “Dog Days” their name, not because it’s visible then, but the opposite — because, as the ancient astronomers knew, it’s near the sun (and therefore obliterated for us by sunlight) at the hottest time of year.

Sirius is a strange star to look at because, on a clear black night, it scintillates unusually sharply. Robert Burnham in his “Celestial Handbook” says its actual color is white with a blue tinge. Ancient astronomers described it as red, which it’s definitely not now. When in the 1970s the British pop-astronomer Patrick Moore asked TV viewers to describe what color Sirius was on a particular night and time, more than 5,000 replied: Half said it was bluish or bluish-white, about a quarter said white, 14 percent said it flashed all colors, and others said greenish, yellowish or orange.

On the surface this might simply mean that stars are too far away to tell, anyway, so it’s all in your mind’s eye. But this isn’t true, really. Most stars show a definite color to the eye. Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder is red. Rigel, at Orion’s foot, is bluish-white.

Many winter nights I’ve watched Sirius glint white, green and red, blue, yellow. It transcends what we call “twinkling,” which is a result not of star combustion but of light bending and splitting as it courses through the Earth’s unsteady air. Each one of the millions upon millions of stars that shine down on us has its own characteristics of light that develop in particular ways when they hit our eyes.

Sirius’ flashing distinguishes it from other stars, and gives it a character. A sort of inner tingle ripples in my mind, whether I look at it through a telescope or glance up from the driveway. It’s a fleeting experience of Sirius’ particular beauty, I guess.

Beauty is a real thing. Whatever brain-chemicals the stars’ colors, locations and brightnesses stir up, the experience is real.

This starts to be reckless talk, scientifically speaking, because at some point the beauty is no longer in the iris and cornea but in the mind’s eye. In the eye of the beholder, like they say. And yet, down through the eons the stars have consistently provoked the same feelings — awe, vastness and depth. Even scientists, try as they might to partition off their feelings, are moved by starlight.

At some point the stars get personal. You might make fun of this way of doing things, but lifelong curiosity about our place among the infinities leads to strange findings. The stars’ distinct colors and magnitudes reveal, with observation, personalities. Sirius’ beauty is of a completely different tenor than Altair’s, or Algol’s in Perseus. The way your experience of Cadillac Mountain is different from your experience of Kansas cornfields. Same thing — natural beauty — but different qualities and powers.

Dana Wilde’s collection of Amateur Naturalist and other writing, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available electronically and in paperback from Booklocker.com. “Nebulae,” his collection of writings on the stars and planets, will be available this summer.

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