John F. Ptak investigates when stars began to appear as dots in celestial atlases:The first star atlas published in 1482 after the work of the first century astronomer and philosopher Hyginius contains maps of the constellations composed of such beautiful light-encrusted bits. There wouldn’t be another work like this one, strangely, for another 75 years. Alessandro Piccolomini’s work of 1559 (which would be the first true star atlas), and again we see the familiar representation. I thought that this would change with the invention of the telescope, so I checked out Galileo’s beautiful account (pictured below) of his discoveries in the Sidereus — again the same complicated, sawblade stars.
One of my most bizarre but best-loved part-time jobs has been Astronomy Teaching Assistant as an undergraduate. The simple job of the Astronomy TA was to open the observatory each week, set the telescopes in the general direction of the obligatory planets, and to teach constellations.
Teaching constellations is an exercise in storytelling. You see, dots, these anonymous light encrusted patterns, must be memorized and categorized, and it’s only through stories that one can make sense of them. Starting with the north star, and systematically creating relationships in the winter sky among Hercules and Sagittarius, Libra and Polaris, we told tales. We’d trade stories on top of the old stone building in the middle of dark campus until late into the night. Creating these stories, giving Hercules a relationship to Cassiopeia — true or not, good or not, believable or not, it didn’t matter — what mattered were that patterns were found and marked.
Marking patterns and making content accessible through stories is what we do. And often, still, when we begin, we’re in the dark.
[Image: Galilei, Galilei Sidereus Nuncius (known in English as Starry Messenger), published 1610]