« The Coming War | Main | The Confederacy is Evil »

October 25, 2002

We Need New Constellations

I've been spending the last few days working with the constellations, drafting images for the cartographers over at Rough Guides to turn into actual star charts (hint: It's easier to do when you're making screenshots off of astronomy software, as I've been doing. Yes, you have to get permission from the software makers before you do this sort of thing. Yes, I did). There are 88 officially recognized constellations, but I ended up with 69 charts, on account that I paired up several of the smaller and/or less impressive constellations. Sad to say, many constellations just don't rate their own star chart.

It's not like they care, mind you. They're just abstract representations of earthly objects projected into the sky by humans, using stars that have only a passing relationship to each other. Stars that look close in our night sky can be hundreds of light years apart; it's that whole "space is three dimensional" thing (and actually, space is four dimensional -- some stars we see in the sky may already be long-dead and gone, it's just taking a while for the news to reach us, thank you very much Dr. Einstein).

I don't think most people realize how many strange and pointless constellations are sitting up there in the sky. In a way, this is only natural (said, of course, ironically): Most of us live in urban areas, where light pollution and other sorts of pollution conspire to blank out fainter stars from our view. I remember living in Chicago and looking up and being able to see nothing but the 10 or 20 brightest stars -- really not enough to go naming constellations by. Since many of the more obscure constellations are composed mainly of faint stars, why should people know them? When it comes to constellations, you can't know what you can't see.

The other reason is that constellations just don't mean what they used to people. When you've got PlayStation 2, what do you need with the constellation Vulpecula (this is not a knock on PlayStation 2, said the Chief Entertainment Media Critic for Official US PlayStation Magazine, quickly, before he can get fired for disloyalty). If you can make out and recognize the Big Dipper (which, strictly speaking, is an asterism, not a constellation), or maybe Taurus or Orion, you're doing just fine.

Still, it's interesting to know what weird and freaky objects are up there in the sky. For example, did you know that there's a giraffe walking around near the celestial north pole? It's the constellation Camelopardalis (pictured above), which, being circumpolar as it is, is always hovering in the night sky here in the northern hemisphere. Its near neighbors include two bears, a bobcat, a dragon, and a guy carrying around a couple of goats. I think it's a little out of place.

The fact of the matter is that Camelopardalis is a fairly recent constellation, created just a few hundred years ago by an astronomer who noticed that there was this wide swath of space with no constellation in it; he just spotted a few dim stars (none higher than 4th magnitude, which means you won't be able to see them n the suburbs), strung 'em together, and there you have it -- instant constellation.

Other lesser-known constellations in the northern sky: Delphinus and Equuleus (the dolphin and horse, respectively), Sagitta (the arrow) and Vulpecula (the fox), Corvus and Crater (a crow and a cup, and they actually share a mythological story together), Canes Venatici (hunting dogs) and Coma Berenices (Berenice's hair, and isn't that a weird one: A wig in space). The thing about these constellations is that if you can identify one of them, you're probably the sort of person who can identify them all. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. I am writing an astronomy book, you know. I want you to be know these things.

The earth's southern hemisphere has a lot of unfamiliar constellations for most of us, but that's to be expected, since most people on the planet live in the northern hemisphere, rather above the equator, thus there are constellations down under that we never see: Chameleon, Pavo, Apus, Hydrus, Tucana, Octans -- all circumpolar to the South Pole.

Be that as it may, the southern hemisphere has a lot of constellations seem a little odd in their own right; many of them were described and created during the Age of Exploration (when the Europeans hopped in their ships to travel the world and surprise the natives of other lands with Jesus and smallpox), and so describe scientific objects: Microscopes, telescopes, compasses, air pumps, carpenter's levels, chisels, pendulum clocks and octants. A fan of rationality though I may be, I'm not at all impressed with any of these: I want the night sky to be filled with wild animals and mythological heroes, not to resemble Galileo's laboratory.

Given the fact that so many constellations are dim and/or obscure and/or just plain lame, I have an idea. I say we yank most of the constellations. I figure we have to keep the signs of the zodiac, otherwise we'll have to fund an Omnibus Astrologers' Assistance Bill in congress, and then keep on some of the most obvious constellations in both hemispheres: Orion, Centaurus, Ursae Major and Minor, Crux, and so on. Say, the top 25 or 30 constellations get to stay. The rest: Gone. Then we start voting on new constellations -- and by "we" I mean pretty much the whole planet. You may not know this, but the night sky is officially pretty damn Eurocentric, up to and including the parts that can't actually be seen from Europe (although there is a Native American in the southern sky -- Indus -- and I bet he's surprised to be so far from home). It can't hurt to let the voting power of China or India put in a constellation or two (or three, whatever).

The only rules I'd put in would be that the new constellations couldn't be of real people -- thus avoiding the constellations Mao, Elvis and Dale Earnhardt -- and that we'd pretty much want to avoid any technological advance of, oh, the last 100 years. That way we're not stuck with the constellations TiVo, Nintendo or Cell Phone. Other than that, let 'em rip. We'll let the astronomers keep the old constellations, of course, because there's no point in having to rename the entire sky for scientific purposes. It's like how they use Metric and stuff. You know, just because they do doesn't mean we have to. And it'll get people looking up at the sky again. That's not bad.

Oh, come on. It'll be fun. You won't miss dumb ol' Camelopardalis anyway.

Posted by john at October 25, 2002 08:42 PM


Justin Eagle | October 17, 2005 01:07 PM


John Scalzi | October 17, 2005 02:05 PM

No. It's not a mythological sign.

gaylord focker | November 9, 2005 12:17 PM

How many constellations are there

cooldude | November 9, 2005 12:19 PM

How many stars are there total?
How big is the universe?
How long has it been aroud?

ashley | December 6, 2005 12:18 PM

Is there a myth for Hydrus? Is it easily seen?

John Scalzi | December 6, 2005 01:17 PM

Guys: I'm not actively monitoring this entry (I wrote it years ago), so leaving questions here won't do you any good. Try Wikipedia for a start.

RSS Angel | December 21, 2005 06:40 AM

Best to check out some astronomy books too - they cater for the astronomy side of constelaltions, as well as any associated myths you guys might be wondering about :) Some of the constellations are pretty boring though (a whole heap were simply discovered as animals/ half are instruments) so don't get your hopes up.

John Scalzi | December 21, 2005 07:13 AM

Indeed. In fact, if you get "The Rough Guide to the Universe," each constellation is described in detail, including its orgins. I know it's accurate since I wrote it myself.

google | June 19, 2006 05:29 PM

www.google.ca led me to this website

goldilox | October 15, 2006 02:34 AM

john this is such a wierd artical

Autumn | October 15, 2006 12:25 PM

where did delphinus get it's name from

John Scalzi | October 15, 2006 12:57 PM

It means dolphin.

Jonathan | October 15, 2006 04:10 PM

Mythological? Ok, A vote for R2-D2, Yoda, and Jar-Jar... just to piss you off John.

diana | November 7, 2006 10:51 PM

how mant contellation do we have? :P

Anonymous | February 28, 2007 07:29 PM

is it true that Gamymede was the most beautiful boy on Earth.

John Scalzi | February 28, 2007 07:52 PM

Reportedly, but I wasn't there to verify.

Tashi | March 4, 2007 02:52 PM

is their a myth for Hydrus

Tashi | March 4, 2007 02:53 PM

is their a myth for Hydrus

Patrick Desmond | May 4, 2007 11:24 AM

I am looking for a star chart with no constellations drawn on them. I would like to let my gifted second grade students create their own constellations. Any ideas for sources? Thanks!

Post a comment.

Comments are moderated to stop spam; if your comment goes into moderation, it may take a couple of hours to be released. Please read this for my comment moderation policies.
Preview will not show paragraph breaks. Trust me, they're there.
The proprietor generally responds to commenters in kind. If you're polite, he'll be polite. If you're a jackass, he'll be a jackass. If you are ignorant, he may correct you.
When in doubt, read the comment thread rules.

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)