AMATEUR NATURALIST

Forces of nature

Regulus. Dwarf galaxy Leo I is to the right.
Courtesy of Russell Croman/www.rc-astro.com
Regulus. Dwarf galaxy Leo I is to the right.
Posted March 24, 2012, at 5:42 p.m.
Last modified March 25, 2012, at 11 a.m.

I remember looking up one night decades ago through broken clouds, with icy snow underfoot, and feeling afraid. The kind of fear that creeps along the back of your neck and clogs your throat.

It was a star, one pin of light among thousands, unimaginably far away. Huge distances are chilling. But this time its photons, launched from its burning surface centuries before, seared my mind’s eye and the star sort of awoke. It scared the hell out of me.

It’s sort of reckless to recount a story like this in public. It could provoke mean laughter, or worse, indifference. A grown (and young) man “afraid” of a star countlessly far away?

It was a long time ago. I don’t know what star it was. Over the decades I built up some objective, sky-chart-type knowledge. But that first moment of fear was not the last. And what’s more, I was not the first to feel it — and hardly the last, I imagine, though our experience of the natural world is very different here in the 21st century from what it used to be.

One spring Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, the lion, got my attention. You can see Leo prominently late in the evening at this time of year slightly south of overhead — five fairly bright stars in roughly the shape of Virginia. Right now Mars is burning a bright rusty color in the lower part of the constellation. Regulus is the star at the lower right. It’s about 79 light-years away and shines with a luminosity 360 times greater than the sun, and is three or four times as big. It has an unusual sheen, or luster. That luster can work strange events on your mind’s eye. I didn’t spend a lot of nights on Regulus. It got uncomfortable quickly. Sort of overbearing, in a weird way.

I don’t know why I think you’re supposed to understand the words “uncomfortable” or “overbearing.” It’s just a star. But there it is. And apparently I was not the first to feel it.

When I stopped looking and started reading about it, I discovered that the name Regulus, a form of the Latin for “king,” was given by Copernicus in the 1500s, and is just the most recent in a long line of names marking the star as a ruler. The Romans called it Regia, “royal one.” The Arabs called it Malikiyy, “kingly one,” a word translated from a Greek link to an ancient king, Amagalaros. The Greeks also called it Basilicos, “regal.”

Persians called it Miyan, “central one.” Earlier, Babylonians called it Sharru, “the king,” and Akkadians called it Amil-gal-ur, “king of the celestial sphere.” This is going back more than 3,000 years. Hindus called it Magha, “mighty.” Some Chinese astronomers called the constellation the Yellow Dragon — in China the dragon has many of the same connotations of regality the lion has for us.

Here in the scientific age, it’s taken for granted that the original star names were whimsies (which ironically is how they tend to arise now — by a dust cloud’s shape, or after a TV character) because the stargazers, being ignorant of scientific facts, could only concoct fantasy explanations: Mars was named after the war god because it’s red, like blood, and blood is spilled in war.

Were they really that innocently hasty? Those ancient astronomers were no less intelligent and no less diligent than our guys with telescopes, calculus and relativity. But they were not seeking the same kind of knowledge modern astronomers seek. They not only tracked Regulus’ path in the zodiac, they also paid attention to the particular kind of awe its luster worked on their minds’ eye. An intuition of “royal” developed there repeatedly, for millennia, before anyone had a clue there was any such distance as 79 light-years. The star names were not whims but expressions of certain kinds of highly refined knowledge that was not empirical. In the ancient experience, the stars were forces, detectable through fear, that we are obliged to pay respect to.

The ancients would no doubt be astounded to know what we know. And I have a feeling we would be astounded, or terrified, to find out what they knew.

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

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