In Defense of Constellations

Over at Slate they’ve got a classic Slate-ish bit of astronomer-baiting from Daniel Engber arguing against constellations:

On an otherwise clear evening, whatever the season, a smog of Bronze Age graffiti sweeps across the glittering dome and stains the heavens with crude shapes and stick figures—the doodles of a primitive mind. Snakes and scorpions, shepherds and fish, cups and spoons—no image is too dreary or mundane so long as it reflects the anxieties and preoccupations of a life spent farming in Mesopotamia or trawling the ancient seas. These connect-the-dots are among the most heinous affronts to nature ever devised, a witless miscalculation that has corrupted our landscape for thousands of years and ruined a billion nights. If only there were a way to shake the heavenly Etch-a-Sketch and make them all disappear! If only we could erase the constellations!

Points for style and the humor of pushing the bounds of hyperbole (“most heinous affronts to nature,” really?), I guess, but this is pretty ludicrous. Three points: first, constellations help you orient yourself in the night sky. Having everyone know and agree on them makes it easy to find a map or other aid (I particularly like Google Sky Map for my phone). When I was in South Africa and realized one night that I could see an upside-down Big Dipper just on the horizon it was quite the flash of insight, as well as a good sense of just how far south I had gone.

Second, Engber whines about how the constellations reflect peasant preoccupations from thousands of years ago, but the fact is it wasn’t so long ago we were largely a race of peasants. It’s already too easy to forget that. Besides, when you look up the constellations, half the time it’s not even clear what the thing is supposed to be. Vela? Puppis? Those are just random shapes unless you want to read into the mythology.

Third, this line is just offensive: “Why should Orion be a hunter, and not a bus driver, or a civil-rights lawyer, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company?” I think the ego of the modern CEO is bloated enough without writing one into the heavens. Sheesh.

Anyway, this is just a bit of a buildup to post a cool timelapse from the good old Southern Hemisphere. Make sure you catch the Southern Cross!

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.