Some Sirius musing about the winter sky

I love the southern winter sky, the clarity that a cold night can bring, Orion and dogs returning like old friends, Sirius, and every other one of those twinkling lights that spread beyond my ability to grasp their distance in any meaningful manner.

It’s always tempting to break out in a rousing rendition of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.”

Stars twinkle because the Earth’s layered atmosphere, acting like a prism, bends the starlight (think how a straw looks in a glass of water) in many directions.

We interpret this motion as twinkling. If we were on the space station, the stars would appear as sharp points of light. Stars closer to the horizon twinkle more than stars overhead because they’re seen through more miles of atmosphere.

Humans have watched the stars since they slept out under the night sky. Like us, they tried to make sense of what they saw, even without a telescope.

The only way some questions could be answered (if you didn’t want to keep repeating, ‘I don’t know!’ to every question from your child) was to put what you saw into a system.

Cultures have a rich history of stories and myths that often answered “why” in tales of epic battles and judgments of the gods.

Some cultures worshipped the brightest star in the sky – Sirius; others linked it to summer heat (it’s roughly in the same path as the sun during the summer). Its name may come from seirios, meaning scorcher (although some references say it means twinkling), which might explain the phrase “dog days of summer.”

Then there’s the aliens-came-from-Sirius theory, based on the West African Dogon tribe that worshipped Sirius (the Dog star) for thousands of years and believed Sirius had a heavy, invisible companion star.

Tribal priests said amphibious gods resembling mermen and mermaids dropped by from the Dog Star and shared this information.

Most researchers suggest the tribe’s stories may have incorporated information left by explorers or brought back by tribal members who served in the French military.

As one researcher put it, claims that Sumerians depicted a fish man, “proof” of the aliens, conveniently don’t mention other bas-reliefs of fish-deer and fish-lions. All of which resembles the way we sometimes react to politicians, hearing what we want to hear, ignoring that which doesn’t support our assumptions.

But back to science: follow Orion’s belt, which angles down to your left. That “line” will lead you to Sirius, the bottom point of the upside down Winter Triangle. The upper right corner of the triangle is Betelgeuse, part of Orion; the upper left of the triangle is Procyon.

The Dog Star is in the constellation alpha Canis Majoris (Larger Dog) and part of the Sirius super cluster that is moving toward the galactic center, astronomers say.

It’s an easy-to-spot star because of its blue-white twinkling brightness. Sirius is a binary or double star system, deduced by astronomers in the mid-19th century and later verified by telescope.

We see Sirius A, but unseen Sirius B (The Pup) is a white dwarf, the first of its kind to be found. They orbit around each other once about every 50 years.

Ancients called it a red star, although we see bluish-white. There’s no clear-cut explanation, since they described as red five other stars, and they are still red. On the other hand, early Chinese observers described Sirius as white.

Many have tossed in red, white and blue theories, but not even a cosmic cloud between Sirius and Earth can explain why observers in approximately the same time period recorded different colors.

How fortunate that we don’t need to know fact or fantasy to enjoy Sirius.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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