17,500 Years In The Making – A Small Contribution To The 3rd Edition Of “Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography”

Above: One of my all-time favorite images – a mural within the Lascaux Caves, possibly depicting three (now) prominent asterisms in the nighttime skies of winter.

I had been forwarded along a link from the now-defunct spacetoday.org site back in ’08 or ’09 about a possibly astronomical origin to one particular wall painting within the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Someone, either in an expedition or with photos from the documentation, must have had some amateur astronomy background (because most professional astronomers only enter caves when they’re obtaining data) and noticed that the groupings of stars on either side of one connect-the-dots now-extinct auroch (note the timing here – the bull is, astronomically-speaking, a later invention) had the right placement – and nearly the right counts – to maybe, kinda, sorta, possibly be as if someone had drawn the Orion Belt stars (and their collective +1) and a 25x zoom of our second-closest open cluster – the Pleiades (M45) – on either side of a cluster of black dots on an auroch’s head that could represent our closest open cluster – the Hyades.

This type of ancient astronomy history sticks *hard* in my brain, leading to the usual scouring of information online for other reports, images, refutations, etc. This then lead to my including the story way back in a November, 2009 constellation-of-the-month article for the SAS’s Astronomical Chronicle and, with clarifying image, in the December 2016 article of the short-lived Upstate New York Stargazing series.

For someone wanting the unmodified image from the mural, there remains a high-res download available from baerchen3.wp.com.

It should come as no surprise that our ancestors would want to take the most mystical part of their day – the night – inside with them. There is no shortage of civilizations combining small clusters of stars in the sky with fantastical stories (see: the Northern Constellations), and seeing patterns in otherwise random visuals has probably been a solid feature in our brains far longer than any crafted image we’re likely to find buried in any ancient community (see: Pareidolia).

Above: A screencap of the relevant image and associated star chart from “Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography.” Click for a larger view.

If, in fact, this mural was intended to represent the arrangement of what we know as Orion’s Belt, what we know as Taurus the Bull, and what we now call the Pleiades, it raises a host of questions. Is there somehow a direct, herd-migratory line from this cave painting to the walls of Babylon and into early western mythology? Was there a single painter? Was the head or were the stars painted first? If more than one person did it, same question – did someone add the stars to a head, or add the head to the stars? If we looked hard enough on either side of the current belt in the nighttime sky, would we see remnants of a far distant supernova in the background that might have appeared to the cave dwellers as a new, bright fourth star? Alternatively, how much trouble did Ukleois (remember, he’s French) get into by adding the fourth star to the Belt? Did the painter, intending to remove the fourth star after admonishing Ukle-çois for his vandalism, die in a violent way during the morning hunt for breakfast, leaving the fourth star there for all time? Is the right-most or the left-most fourth star the wrong one? Did anyone take fingerprints of these two stars to see which was different from the middle two to know which was the unwanted addition? Was the painting a deep thought of artistic expression by Jean-Ukle that should be deeply read into as a marker of Paleolithic human endeavor, or was it a particularly miserable rainy Tuesday night and Jean-Ukle was simply lamenting not being able to enjoy a bucolic moonlight stroll by spending the evening instead scribbling on a flat piece of cave while getting mildly blotto from the carbon monoxide?

We may never have the answers to these questions.

In the meantime, I have ended up contributing to the astronomical literature in the tiniest of ways to this earliest of anti-memes (because it did not come to you – you had to go to it) in the newly printed 3rd Edition of Nick Kanas’ excellent (e)book “Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography,“ available at amazon and wherever fine Springer Praxis books are sold.

He’s a fellow amateur astronomer, so I liked him already. Additionally (from the amazon bio)…

Dr. Nick Kanas is an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, where he directed the group therapy training program and wrote a book entitled Group Therapy for Schizophrenic Patients. For over 20 years, he conducted research in group therapy, and for over 15 years after that he was the Principal Investigator of NASA-funded psychological research on astronauts and cosmonauts. In 1999, Dr. Kanas received the Aerospace Medical Association Raymond F. Longacre Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in the Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects of Aerospace Medicine. In 2008, he received the International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Award. He has over 230 scientific publications.

Dr. Kanas is the coauthor of Space Psychology and Psychiatry (now in its 2nd edition), which won the 2004 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award. In 2015, he authored Humans in Space: The Psychological Hurdles, which won the 2016 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award. 

Dr. Kanas has been an amateur astronomer for over 50 years. He has collected antiquarian celestial maps for over 30 years and has given talks on the history of celestial cartography to amateur and professional groups.  He is the author of Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (now in its 2nd edition), and Solar System Maps: From Antiquity to the Space Age. An avid science fiction reader, Dr. Kanas has given talks and participated on panels at numerous World Science Fiction Conventions. He has published articles for Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine and won the Analog AnLab 2015 readers’ poll award for Best Fact Article of the year. He has published three science fiction novels for the Springer Science and Fiction series: The New Martians, The Protos Mandate, and The Caloris Network. Except for his group therapy book, all of his books are published by Springer.

Check his website (nickkanas.com), follow him on twitter (@nick_kanas), give a listen to an interview on The Space Show (and subscribe and support it, as it is excellent), and go buy a copy of the book.

Upstate NY Stargazing (The Article Series, Anyway): 2016 – 2018

Above: Uranus, the one planet making all of the rounds in your favorite news feeds today, as captured by Voyager 2 in 1986. Credit: NASA/JPL.

For those wondering why the May 1st web content on syracuse.com and newyorkupstate.com looks a little brighter (get it?), I’m passing along here that the article series has been cancelled by Syracuse Media Group. After almost two years, 28 articles (having even gone weekly last summer to coax people out more often with up-to-date positioning and flyover timings), one well-attended solar eclipse, and a short-stack of Uranus potty humor and misspelled complaints about grammar and punctuation (sorry again, Kathleen), readership for the series wasn’t high enough to warrant its continuation.

The series was both enjoyable and instructive for my part – having to put together observing lists, keep record of planetary positions to know when to head outside with a pair of binoculars, make Stellarium do what I wanted it to do, and focus a few paragraphs worth of new content at top (a monthly whatever) and bottom (an easily-observable constellation) each month was a great exercise for keeping myself in the amateur astronomy loop, even when the weather conditions in CNY/UNY did not lend themselves to being outside for more than a few minutes at a time.

Obviously, it didn’t do much to shorten my sentences.

Best of all was the monthly reminder that groups of amateurs all over the state were still hosting public sessions and organizing their own events – and that there are many individuals either hosting their own observing websites or sharing their observing logs and images with their respective member organizations.

My thanks to Glenn Coin for keeping astronomy-related content still appearing in syracuse.com and newyorkupstate.com as significant events happen and to Steve Carlic for making the series happen in the first place. Space stories by “not me” always make their way to both websites as well – I am optimistic that Uranus will always coax comments, even if some readers never make it past the title.

Finally – as was the point of the article series – if you see an astronomy event in your area, go to it. If you’ve a local club, join it – membership dues keep these organizations running. Most importantly, if you see someone waaaaaay off the scientific mark, find a polite way to correct them or, at least, make it clear to those around them that the facts are out there. Google and wikipedia remain wonderful resources when used correctly.

And, with that, the entire series is PDF’ed and posted at the link below:

www.somewhereville.com/upstate-new-york-stargazing/

“Upstate NY Stargazing” Series At newyorkupstate.com And syracuse.com – Summaries And Links For The Last Few Months

The old adage “if you want to really learn something, teach it” has been in full effect these past few months with the writing of the UNY Stargazing series for newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com (which don’t combine the comments and shares. You have to go to both!). Firstly, it is excellent practice for anyone doing astronomy outreach to try to capture all of the events and observing opportunities that a new or casual observer might find interesting – while providing enough extra detail to whet the appetites of those reading with a wikipedia tab open (which remains the go-to for astro consistently accurate astronomy information). Secondly, if helps sharpen the editorial blade – such as by not using the word “old” to qualify “adage” when you’re really trying to keep it to 2500 words.

After 11 months of articles, the UNYStargazing template is fairly matured, Stellarium has moved well into advanced topics stage, and the many astronomy clubs that have allowed their public events to be posted have all resulted in an increasingly smooth and, hopefully, informative read.

Having ignored this blog generally recently, here’s the last four months in rapid succession:

– Upstate NY Stargazing in February: Lunar eclipse, Kopernik star party, ‘Dog Nights of Winter’

* nyup.com/outdoors/2017/02/upstate_ny_stargazing_in_feb…

* syr.com/outdoors/2017/02/upstate_ny_stargazing_in_feb…

Featuring a washed-out lunar eclipse and one of Larry Slosberg’s great lunar images.

– Upstate NY Stargazing In March: Messier Marathon and the Lunar Occultation of Aldebaran

* syr.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2017/02/upstate_ny_stargazing_mar…

* nyup.com/outdoors/2017/02/upstate_ny_stargazing_mar…

Friend and Kopernik Astronomical Society member George Normandin provided the eye candy to start the March article, which included a discussion of Messier Objects (such as M31, M32, and M110) still long enough to get the editor’s attention (but it was about Messier Objects and sometimes you have to say stuff). The Lunar occultation of Aldebaran was pointed out to the ASRAS email list by Brad Timerson and then promoted on the CNYO website.

– Upstate NY stargazing in April: Comet hunting and the Lyrid meteor shower

* nyup.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2017/03/upstate_ny_stargazing_in…

* syr.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2017/03/upstate_ny_stargazing_in…

Brad Loperfido of Revette Studio and the CNYO Facebook Group had an amazing capture of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, M97, and M108, allowing for a final addition to the Messier Object discussion with the objects that Messier was most interested in finding – comets. The month also included a washed-out Lyrid Meteor Shower peak and a proper shout-out to astronomy.fm.

– Upstate NY stargazing in May: A meteor shower and preparations for the solar eclipse

* nyup.com/outdoors/2017/05/upstate_ny_stargazing_in_may…

* syr.com/outdoors/2017/05/upstate_ny_stargazing_in_may…

The first in the series prepping for the great North American eclipse on August 21st of this year, featuring a NASA/SDO/AIA image (our tax dollars at work) and a continuation of the discussion of circumpolar constellations (which will get a full summary in four more articles).