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.

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Titan's Ontario Lacus and Namibia's Etosha Pan Credit: NASA/JPL/ESA

Guest Voices: Cultural Astronomy of the Miami

Out guest post this week is by Tim McCoy, Curator-in-Charge, Division of Meteorites and Chair of the Department of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He is also a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

Elder Mildred Walker with Myaamia Project Director Daryl Baldwin planting Myaamia miincipi (Miami white corn). Courtesy of Daryl Baldwin and the Myaamia Project

Just as in various African cultures, watching the sky has been part of the lives of my tribe– the Myaamia or Miami– for countless generations. Throughout our lives, the cycles occurring overhead and within our homelands define the days, months, seasons, and years. This deep knowledge of our place– from our ancestral homelands in the Wabash River Valley (of what is now Indiana) to removal lands in modern Kansas and Oklahoma –has shaped our language and culture.   After generations of loss of cultural knowledge, and a period in which our language wasn’t spoken, we are regaining this knowledge of language and culture.   As a planetary scientist at the Smithsonian and citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, I have worked within my community to produce a multi-generational curriculum about the earth and sky.

Corn in various stages of grinding. Courtesy of Daryl Baldwin and the Myaamia Project

At the same time, our community has worked to strengthen our understanding of links between cycles in the sky and those in our homelands.    With the coming of the next new Moon, wiihkoowia kiilhswa (the whippoorwill moon) will arrive. This time of the year is when the whippoorwills– a type of bird found in North and Central America– call to begin the mating season.   The whippoorwill’s call also marks the time for planting Myaamia miincipi (Miami white corn).   If we plant in this Moon, the corn reaches the milk stage during kiisiinkwia kiilhswa (the green corn moon) and good to eat as fresh corn.  In the fall, this white flour corn will be harvested and ground for flour and meal.  Thus, while the sky provides a marker of time, it is also closely linked to these ecological cycles occurring in our homelands.

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

East African Rift Valley, as seen from space Credit: NASA

  • Crew members aboard Expedition 30 of the International Space Station took this photo of the East African Rift Valley in Kenya, located near its border with Tanzania. In this image, you can see numerous linear fault lines that occupy the floor of the valley; the rift was formed by a fracturing of Earth’s crust. Shadows cast by the late afternoon sun make the fault scarps (steps in the landscape caused by slip motion along individual faults) more prominent. The rift is also home to numerous active and dormant volcanoes.
  • This month, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the South-African National Research Foundation, and IBM signed a memorandum of understanding on joint research into advanced ICT (information and communication technologies) targeted at radio astronomy. Jasper Horrell, the South African leader on the project: “This collaboration fits very well in the ambitions of South-Africa to strengthen our international networks and intensify our collaboration with industry.”

Guest Voices: Hawaiian Celestial Navigation

Our guest post this week is by Doug Herman, Senior Geographer for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

The discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesian voyagers over a thousand years ago is one of the greatest human adventures and feats of navigation.  Not only did these sailors cross 2500 miles of open ocean in crafts made with stone-age tools, but once they found these islands, they sailed back and forth to their South Pacific homelands (the Marquesas, and later Tahiti) many, many times.  Each trip required finding tiny dots of land in the midst of a vast ocean.  How did they do it?  Just as various cultures in Africa relied upon star knowledge to travel, we know today that in-depth star knowledge was the essential part of traditional Polynesian navigation.

Pius Mau Piailug and Harry Ho, Honaunau, 1992, courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society

When Native Hawaiians built the Hokule‘a voyaging canoe in 1976 with the plan to sail to Tahiti using traditional methods, Hawaiian star knowledge had long been lost.  Oral tradition holds that transoceanic voyaging to and from Hawaii ended in the 13th century.  So Pius Mau Piailug, a navigator from the tiny Micronesian island of Satawal, was recruited to guide the Hokule‘a.  Mau successfully made landfall in Tahiti, and the Hokule‘a has since voyaged all over the Pacific, finding islands using traditional navigation.  A new generation of Hawaiian navigators emerged under Mau’s tutelage, and more voyaging canoes have been built.

The Hawaiian Star Compass, courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society

Navigating by stars requires learning the rising and setting positions of stars in eight directions of the sky.  Because each star is useful only when near the horizon, the navigator must know a series of stars for each position.  Mau knew the paths of over 160 stars.  Knowledge of ocean swells was used when the stars were not visible.  Latitude can be found using pairs of stars that set together.  Voyagers would aim upwind of their destination island, and having reached the appropriate latitude, sail downwind along that line until landfall was made.

Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson has used Mau’s knowledge and the fragments of Hawaiian star lore to create a new star guidance system for today’s Hawaiian voyagers. Na Ohana Hoku Eha, The Four Star Families, divide the celestial sphere into four sections that run from North to South.  Using names from Hawaiian history and folklore, this new star-knowledge system restores Hawaiian star names into the vernacular of today’s voyagers, making the night sky relevant to today’s Hawaiians.  By memorizing these “families” and each member star as well as their relative positions, navigators can determine which stars should be overhead even if they are obscured by clouds.

Na Ohana Hoku Eha (The Four Star Families)

Kekaomakali’I (The bailer of Makali’i): Makali’i is one Hawaiian name for the Pleiades star cluster.

Kaiwikuamo‘o (The Backbone): This starline is called “Backbone” for it runs from the North Star, Hokupa‘a (Fixed Star) to Hanaiakamalama, the Southern Cross.

Manaiakalani (Maui’s Fishhook): The magic hook of the Hawaiian demigod Maui shares many of the same stars as the constellation Scorpius and was named Manaiakalani.

Kalupeakawelo (Kite of Kawelo):The four stars in the kite of Kawelo are named after four prominent chiefs of the islands: Manokalanipo, chief of KauiKeawe, of Hawaii Island; Pi‘ilani, of Maui; .and Kakuhihewa of O‘ahu.

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Timbuktu manuscripts; Courtesy of Timbuktu Foundation

  • The recent seizure of Timbuktu by rebels in northern Mali has raised fears about the preservation of the famed Timbuktu manuscripts. The manuscripts, which date back to the thirteenth century, served as guides on multiple subjects, a significant portion of which included astronomy.
  • Last week the first ever Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth was held in Nairobi. Delegates at the forum spoke of plans to establish a continental science foundation (comparable to the National Science Foundation) to fund innovative and collaborative research across borders.

Guest Voices: Moon, Months, and Language

Our guest post this week is by Dr. Claire Flanagan, Director of the Johannesburg Planetarium, University of the Witwatersrand.

Greetings from the Planetarium in Johannesburg, the biggest and busiest city in South Africa! We had huge fun this week investigating a simple thing: the month.

We’re designing a new show here for our grade 4 – 7 learners – about 30,000 of them visit us each year – and we thought we’d include some local culture in a “moon-phases” lesson.   Our theory is: the month was invented by people watching the moon go through its phases every 29.5 days, so everyone invented and named their own set of 29- and 30-day months.  You can’t make up a 365-day year out of these “lunar months” – they’re too short – so nowadays most people use the well-known January, February, etc.  But do the original month names still exist in South Africa?

Themba (left) studies Environmental Science at Wits University; Claire is the Planetarium astronomer, Karabo and Ray (right) are Planetarium interns.

In one hour, they came across at least ten different languages on campus, including French. “March” in French is “Mars,” which surprised Themba, whose home language is xiTsonga.  Ray was relieved to meet other students who also only know the months in English – English is the main language of teaching here in South Africa, and most people would use the English words for months, even when speaking a different language.

However, the mission was successful, and the group returned to the Planetarium with an hour of video footage and lists of months in eight languages.  Ray settled in to extract a selection of students from the footage, while Karabo set off to find out what the month names mean in his home language, seSotho.

The months in Venda, spoken in parts of northern South Africa.

Karabo’s task generated some lengthy and heated discussion – the three people he consulted debated fiercely over, for example, the meaning of “Pherekgong” (January), eventually agreeing on “the month of cooking chickens.”

Most of the month names we came across involve activities connected to the different times of the year – in seSotho, cooking the chickens is followed by planting the seeds, sprouting of the shoots, cooking the corn, and then laughing at the birds (who are struggling to eat the hardened corn).  As Karabo said, it’s like a story of the seasonal cycle of life, which we think would be perfect for our new Planetarium show!

Watch Ray’s selection of students:

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Hakeem Oluseyi Credit: Florida Institute of Technology

  • Hakeem Oluseyi—astrophysicist, inventor and science educator whose research focuses on measuring the structure and evolution of the Milky Way galaxy and characterizing new planetary systems—has been selected to be a 2012 TED Global Fellow. Oluseyi has served as president of the African Astronomical Society and has worked extensively with students in various African nations. He will return to South Africa to work with University of Cape Town students and to lead observational research projects at the South African Astronomical Observatories in Sutherland.