By Different Stars
Trawling through the various social media sites this morning, I see many people’s status updates are something like “Great night at the Baa!” (One of the many friendly neighbourhood pubs in Dunedin – the name is funnier if you think about how Kiwis say “bar.”)
“OMG Orion is upside down!!! I can see the Southern Cross and Milky Way!!! Sooooo cool!!!!”
It was a great night at the Baa. But it was also the first really clear night that we’ve had since I got here, and as I was walking home (a grand distance of about three blocks, for those of you concerned), I finally saw the Southern Hemisphere stars.
Oh my God.
There’s a lot less light pollution in Dunedin than in Toronto. I’m sure the view would be even better if I got out of town entirely, but as a city girl, I’m not complaining. I know my way around the Northern sky; the main constellations are all well-known friends, I’m acquainted with a few smaller ones, and I can name a handful of individual stars. So it was bizarre – amazing, but bizarre – to find myself under an alien sky. All the signposts were gone: no Ursa Major, no Cassiopeia that I could see. There were a few really bright stars that must have been something, but I didn’t have the names or stories for them.
And overhead, like a swathe of gauze draped across the heavens, the Milky Way. I’ve seen the Milky Way before, but only while up north, never in an urban setting. The longer I stared at it, the more stars emerged from the blackness, until I couldn’t believe I was seeing this from my back yard.
Then I turned, and I saw one familiar sight. Orion, a summer constellation here, was high in the north.
That is when I had a major geek-out. It’s lucky that I was alone, because whomever was with me would have been subjected to a full-blown rant about why it was upside-down, how cool it was that it was upside-down, how Betelgeuse was at the bottom now and, incidentally, is a red giant that may or may not have already gone supernova, and how you could just make out the tiny fuzzy dot that was the Orion nebula… above Orion’s belt.
I think such rants are one of the occupational hazards of working at a living history museum.
When I was in Costa Rica a few years ago, I saw Orion tilted 90 degrees on its side (since Costa Rica is on the equator). Now, I’ve seen it rotated all the way. It is the coolest feeling when a phenomenon you’ve seen in textbooks materializes right in front of you.