Astronomy, the study of stars, may be one of the oldest sciences we study. As we study astronomy we are beginning to see that it could, in fact, be one of our most important sciences. Some individuals even argue its importance when you look at the history of our species as well as our present situation and future too. This study also benefits us by providing a cultural identity.
Since the time of hunter gatherers our ancestors have found ways of navigating by using the stars; we are all descendants of astronomers! Long ago understanding the locations of specific stars and planets meant the difference between life and death. For those who lived in the northern hemisphere, they noticed that one star would stay at a fixed point in the sky while other stars would move around it in a circle. This is our Pole Star Polaris. Our earth sits at a 23.5-degree angle directing the north pole towards Polaris as well as resulting in the seasons. From noticing this pattern of a fixed point our past relatives perceived a way to understand our cardinal directions.
Polaris was not always our North Star though. Thousands of years ago while the pyramids were being built our original star that pointed North for us was named Thuban. Polaris can be the name of any Pole Star our current Pole Star was originally named Phoenice. In about twelve thousand years our new polestar will be Vega in the constellation Lyra. This is due to an interesting movement our Earth has called precession. While our Earth is tilted, revolving and rotating around the sun the process of precession gives our Earth a small wobble which causes a small imaginary circle in the sky every 26000 years.
Humans created their own images and pictures in the sky by connecting the stars. These recognizable patterns of stars are known as constellations. Over thousands of years and thousands of miles, different cultures created similar stories and pictures for their constellations. For example, The Pleiades are a cluster of stars that are most visible in the northern hemisphere during the winter. This star cluster is known as a nebula which is basically a nursery for stars. When we look at the Pleiades we are watching stars being born right before our very eyes. This prominent sight in the night sky has been admired by multiple societies including the Celts, Persians, Chinese, Sioux, and Aztecs.
To illustrate the similarities between the cultures we can look at the Greeks story and compare them to the Native Americans of Wyoming. Although both of these cultures were on opposite ends of the earth they both created stories similar in plots. The two stories illustrate several women who are sisters that are running from danger and eventually made it into the sky only to forever be chased. The Lakota told stories of the women running from bears. Greeks believed the sisters to be running from Orion the Hunter. Interestingly enough the Pleiades star cluster was used around the world in multiple cultures as an early eye chart. Individuals who could see five of the stars in the cluster were considered to have good eyesight, but those who could see seven or more stars were considered to have the best eyesight and sometimes became scouts because of this crucial observational skill.
Today at Arrowhead Ranch we are continuing the practice of this skill in teaching navigation through observation by reading the stars as well as understanding history and culture related to the stars. The night program we have at our outdoor science school conveys the importance of these teachings to our students. While on night time hikes students learn in depth about stars, planets, navigation, constellations and Astronomy. At the conclusion of the hike we leave the children with important skills and the ability to carry on the oldest traditions of one of mankind.