Guest Voices: Everyone Looks Up

Our guest post this week is by Katie Nagy, Public Observatory Coordinator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. 

The constellation Leo; Credit: Katie Nagy

The National Air and Space Museum celebrates Explore the Universe Family Day each year in April.  For the past several years, the theme has been Everyone Looks Up.  Throughout the Museum, visitors engage in activities that help them see the universe through the eyes of people they’ve never met and from places they’ve never visited.  They experience performances, participate in activities, talk to astronomers, and look through telescopes.  The program gives them a chance to think about astronomy as a cultural activity as well as a scientific activity.

To help our visitors get to know their night sky better, the day begins with a planetarium show featuring Star Stories from Around the World.  Visitors see the stars, planets, and constellations that are visible from Washington, DC after the sun goes down.  Then the stars move overhead and everyone sees the constellations as they appear from the equator and the southern hemisphere.  Some constellations are visible in both the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere, like Leo and Orion which are visible here in April.  Other stars can only be seen from certain areas; the southern constellations Carina and Piscis Austrinus, for example, are visible to sky watchers in Africa but not to those in the northern hemisphere.

Even though there are some constellations that we all see, the pictures that we imagine in the stars aren’t necessarily the same as the ones that people in other parts of the world imagine.  The pictures people see and the stories they tell reflect characters and imagery that are important in their culture.

This time of year, the constellation Leo, the lion, is nearly straight overhead in Washington, DC once it gets dark.  People from many different regions and cultures saw a lion in these stars and associated them with royalty and with the Sun.  To the Romans, Leo represented the lion slain by the hero Hercules as the first of his twelve labors.  The sphinx, combining the body of a lion with a human face, may have represented the symbolic association of Egyptian kings with the regal constellation of Leo.  Sky watchers in India, the Middle East, and Mexico also saw a lion in these stars.  Take a close look at your star chart and you’ll see star names in Arabic and Latin labeling the parts of the lion.  Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, is the Latin word for “little king.”  Another prominent star, Denebola, has an Arabic name meaning “the lion’s tail.”

It’s interesting to see the stars of a familiar constellation through the eyes of people from across the world, and to learn what those stars represent to them.  Sometimes the stories are very different, but there are some striking similarities that can show us how much we have in common as people of Earth.