Sunday, November 1, 2015

Concerning Some Favorite Constellations

Usually I full on hate the fall daylight savings time switch, because it means it gets dark super early. Don't get me wrong, I love being able to sleep in a bit longer, but I'm not sure that extra hour of sleep makes up for it starting to get dark at 4:30 in the pm. That said, I found this evening that being dark by 6:30 had an added benefit that I'd forgotten about: the stars come out earlier.

So this evening when I left my apartment for my customary Sunday evening constitutional, I was able to channel my inner Whitman, wandering off by myself in the mystical moist night-air and from time to time looking up in perfect silence at the stars. (That poem is very important to me, and it played a very formative part in me deciding what I want to be when I grow up.) Anyway, as I was wandering the streets, I got to thinking about constellations and which ones are/have been my favorites over the years. So I decided to write those thinkings about here.

1. Orion. Specifically Orion's belt. This is the first constellation that I consciously remember. I vividly recall being a little kid standing at the kitchen screen door while waiting to leave the house for some reason or another. It was winter, I had my coat and hat and gloves on, and the plastic/glass of the screen  door was cold to my nose (and probably tongue). As I stood there waiting I remember looking out at the sky and seeing three stars in particular that demanded my attention. I was fascinated by them. Why were they all in a line like that? From then on whenever we went outside or drove anywhere and I remembered to look at the sky, I looked for those three stars. At some point I remember Dad telling me that they were a part of the bigger constellation Orion. When he told me that I felt super proud of myself for deciding that those three stars belonged together long before I knew that the rest of the world had also decided that they did. To add to the coolness of Orion, I also found out that one of the stars in Orion was called Beetlejuice. Like the movie that I probably wasn't allowed to watch but that I had watched anyway and thought was awesome. As the nerdy little Astronomy-loving kid that I was, I wanted to learn more about Orion, and when I found out that Beetlejuice and its constellation-mate Rigel were two of the brightest stars in the northern night sky (numbers 9 and 7 respectively), well, what more could a constellation ask for? Pop culture association, cool belt, little kid pride and brightest stars. And Orion was a hunter to boot. That sealed the deal. Favorite constellation.

2. Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia became my favorite a few years later, and I can thank my sister Melanie for that. Melanie was/had recently been in an astronomy class at BYU, and while we were in Emery one summer a few of us were outside looking up at the stars. Melanie pointed out the big W in the sky and said that it was called Cassiopeia. Melanie told the story of Cassiopeia and why she got to be in the sky, and while I frankly don't remember the whole story, one part of the story stuck with me really strongly. Cassiopeia's daughter was Andromeda. At this time Andromeda was my favorite galaxy (Yeah, I had a favorite galaxy. I'm telling you, I was a really nerdy little know what, let's face it, I'm still pretty nerdy). It was enough of a favorite for me that at this time in my life I wanted to grow up and get married and have a daughter just so I could name her Andromeda. There wasn't a more perfect name. If I'm being perfectly honest, I still think it's a beautiful name, and if/when I ever get married, and if/when we ever have kids, naming one of them Andromeda may or may not be a point of discussion with the wife. But that's beside the point. The point is that when I found out that Andromeda was Cassiopeia's daughter, I had a new favorite constellation.

3. Cygnus. Cygnus the swan, aka the Northern Cross became my favorite constellation thanks to Dad borrowing a couple of telescopes from the school district and taking them up to the mountains on a ward campout. I don't remember the specifics, but I know that somehow along the way I found out that Albireo, the star at the base of the cross also known as the Cub Scout Star, was a double star consisting of a yellow and blue star (hence the Cub Scout association). I'll never forget standing in that dewy mountain meadow looking up at the sky and only seeing one star, and then looking in the telescope and seeing two, and just having wave after wave of marvel and wonder wash over me. That star was actually two stars! And they were different colors! It was about the coolest thing that I had ever learned. Naturally any constellation associated with such awesomeness was going to be my favorite.

4. Sagittarius. Sagittarius became my favorite constellation during my junior year of high school. It wasn't associated with my discovering previously unknown information about the constellation; by this point I was pretty well on top of all that stuff. Instead it was a purely aesthetic thing, i.e. I liked how it looked. I realized this while laying out on the Riverton High School football field late one night with my astronomy teacher Mr. Hinton and a few other members of my class. We were taking turns pointing out the various constellations that we could see, and after a little while the recitation of the constellations got repetitive and boring. So I started ignoring everyone else, instead looking at and considering each constellation at my own speed. When I got to Sagittarius it struck me as hilarious that this constellation, a centaur, looked like a teapot. A teapot! Plus it was fun to say. It came around to my turn to point out the different constellations (someone had to elbow me because I was thoroughly distracted from what the rest of the class was doing), and when I got to Sagittarius I burst out laughing. When Mr. Hinton asked what was so funny, I tried to explain that it was funny that it looked like a teapot, but my explanation kinda fell flat to my own ears. To my surprise Mr. Hinton started to laugh and said that he'd always thought it was funny too. Mr. Hinton had long been my favorite teacher, so when he validated me and my sense of humor in that moment, I felt really good about myself. And that's all it took. New favorite. Who knows if he actually even thought it was funny, but he recognized that I was probably feeling vulnerable and he made me feel good. So not only did I have a new favorite constellation, but he solidified his place on my list of the best teachers in all the history of ever.

5. Pleiades. For a long time the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, had been on the short list of favorites. For as long as I have known about it (I'm pretty sure it's another one that Melanie introduced me to) I've always thought it was beautiful. I love that the tight cluster works together with the the varying levels of brightness of each star to give the constellation a sense of depth that other constellations lack. That said, it didn't become my favorite constellation until the night, almost exactly 11 years ago, when I decided I wouldn't couldn't make a career of studying astronomy. I had just walked out of the testing center at BYU having taken my 3rd or 4th physics test of the semester, and it had taken me nearly 5 hours to finish that test. While I was confident that I had done pretty well, I also knew that the struggles I was having with the subject matter weren't going away. On top of that, the level of effort I was expending just to be getting halfway decent grades in this entry level course wasn't going to be sustainable over a college degree, let alone a career. For a whole semester I had been trying to rationalize my struggles, saying that this was a weeder course and that they were trying to get the weak to drop out. I knew I wasn't going to be one of those sorry failures that couldn't hack it, so I had determined to ignore any and all thoughts to the contrary. But that 5 hour test proved to be too much, pushing me over the edge, and forcing me to admit to myself for the first time that the goal I had had since second grade of being an Astronomer when I grew up wasn't going to happen. Admitting it scared me. I had never given any thought to a backup plan. As I walked across campus back to my dorm, I looked up at the stars and there they were, those seven sisters, shining as brightly and beautifully as they ever had. At first their beauty only heightened my sadness. Up until this point I had wanted to make that beauty the center of my professional life, and now I was realizing that it wouldn't be possible. But as I continued walking and thinking and looking up at the stars, I also decided that therein was the problem: studying physics and calculus and the like was taking the beauty out of it for me. It was hiding the wonder and awe of the stars behind a curtain of numbers and Greek symbols and math. It was then that I was able to find a little comfort. I was still sad and I still felt lost and I was still a couple years away from finding a replacement field of study that I would find as fulfilling as I had hoped astronomy would be, but in that confusion there was the beauty of the Pleiades. And in that beauty there was some comfort.

Photo courtesy of Hubble
Tonight as I was strolling about town occasionally looking up at the stars and the constellations they form, my eyes naturally drifted to my favorites, those mentioned here (though Orion isn't out yet) and others. As I landed on the Pleiades and remembered our history together, I found that it continues to evoke in me a kind of nostalgic sadness. And I love that. So for that reason I've decided it maintains favorite status.


  1. You had a favorite galaxy? That's probably ten thousand nerd points.

    Thanks for sharing your star stroll. We don't have stars here, so that was a really beautiful read.

  2. The Pleiades has always been one of my favorite constellations as well. This post was beautifully written. It made me laugh and it made me get misty-eyed. I think you chose your course of study wisely, brother.
    Also, you do realize it's actually spelled "Betelgeuse", right? Right?!
    Love you.