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The Stars, the Sky and What We Try to Know

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Lorna PorterNicole StruleiSarah Murphey5/20/04The Stars, the Sky and What We Try to KnowWherever constellations come from, the way the sky is divided up into constellations is arbitrary. Anyone can look up at the sky and connect the dots of stars to form familiar pictures and many people and cultures have done just that. While cultures such as the Greeks and Romanshave looked up and sought explanations of what they saw which reinforced the origins of cultural beliefs, stories, and religion, today we analyze the stars in order for them to show us what we ought to believe about our beginnings. As time progresses, methods for recording observations and star charts have become more accurate and our knowledge of our night sky has increased. Yet, the practice of combining culture with physical observations continues even todayas we attempt to explain the unexplainable with essential unexplainable ideas, such as dark matter. Most of the constellations we use today come to us from the ancient Greeks. Greek society was concerned with both astronomy and mathematics, but the origin of the stars they explained with myth. Often a constellation will also have more than one Greek story or variations of the same story. For purposes of identification, the celestial sphere is broken up into 88 constellations, 48 of which come from the classical world. To avoid confusion, it makes sense to use this standard system of identification in modern astronomy. However, knowing the stories behind the pictures in the sky is not only a good way to remember and identify them, it can also help to understand another cultures perspective of the celestial sphere. Pliny the Elder,who wrote a natural history in the first century A.D, provides us with a picture of the stars that combines accurate measures with Roman concepts of religion and nature. The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, writing during the first century A.D, seeks to do nomore than modern quantum physicists attempt by exploring the ideas of string theory. Though hisphysical explanations for the moon's cycles and eclipses are accurate, religion is not separated from these scientific observations. What can not be determined from careful observations is explained by his own beliefs in religion. The facts he offers, which are influenced by Roman beliefs, were at the time no more provable or disprovable as string theory is now. No matter how far our instruments and method move towards precision, through religion and culture, the human species attempts to account for what it can not measure.The moon, according to Pliny's model, has the shortest orbit, only 27 and one third days, due to it being the closet celestial object to the pole. She follows the radiance of the Sun across the sky 12 times in a year, which is the reason why the year is divided into twelve parts. Correctly, Pliny describes how the moon does not emit light of its own but borrows it from the Sun. The physical explanation for the phases of the moon are no different than today. When the moon is full it is opposite the sun and the illuminated side is toward us: when the moon is new it is because it is between the earth and the Sun and thus returns all the light it has given back to the source (Pliny, 197). These explanations for the observable events of the moon do not differ from modern astronomy.However, Pliny offers spiritual explanations as well. To explain morning dew, Pliny describes more in detail the relationship between the Sun and the Moon. Since the moon borrowsit's light from the Sun, the light it reflects on the earth is milder than direct sun-light. Thus, she causes water to "evaporate with a rather gentle and imperfect force, and indeed increases itsquantity, whereas the sun's rays dry it up" (197). Pliny does not seek to separate spiritual beliefs and science and combines observations of the natural world with religion. Perhaps the most interesting explanation of the heavenly bodies behavior is how comparisons between everyday objects are applied to the stars. The planets and stars are said to need to drink the moisture from the Earth. In fact falling stars occur when they have overfed of moisture. The excess water must be expelled by "a fiery flash, just as with us also we see this occur with a stream of oil when lamps are lit" (Pliny, 189). The Moon is no different in its need for water. The dark spots on the Moon are explained as dirt that has been taken up accidentally along with the moisture of the Earth. When the Moon is waxing or waning there are less spots because the moon is not able to absorb with its borrowed light as much water (197). All living things on Earth need to drink water, and according to Pliny the planets and stars are not inanimate so why should they be any different?The star charts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attempt to combine revised positions of the stars with the Greek models of the constellations. Many of these charts were intended as tools for locating stars but why than keep the Greek mythological constellations? Greek culture is something that has many times been revived by other cultures and has an important role in the academic world. Albrect Durer in 1515 created the first star map that used data from Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Jahon Flamsteed and Johan Bayer but he still utilized the Greek models for constellations (Snyder 7, 52). These constellations were a part of sixteenth century culture now as well and even though the purpose of his map was scientific, the Greek images were still important culturally. Erhard Tatdolt of 1482 is another excellent exampleof culture affecting these charts. His prints in Poeticon Almagest try to use the familiar pictures of the constellations to the point where the stars are skewed from there actual positions to formthese pictures (Brashear, 95). The origins of Greek constellations, though the constellations were now used as identification tools still held importance to these people.Ursa Major is the third largest constellation and a widely recognized group of stars. Ursa Major is also known as the Great Bear or the Big Dipper and has a number of stories associated with it. The most common involves the Greek God Zeus, who became infatuated with Callisto, ahuntress and follower of the Goddess Artemis (Ridpath 126). Zeus raped and impregnated the girl who was then banished by Artemis for breaking a vow of chastity. When Callisto’s son Arcas was born, Zeus’ enraged


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