Constellation Bowie? I don’t think so

Rock star David Bowie died, and according to the Guardian he was “inspired by the universe” (who isn’t?) and so a new constellation has been “registered” for him, “in the shape of a lightning bolt” and “near Mars.”

This story was perhaps picked up from a slightly less garbled version in Rolling Stone magazine.  What happened was that Studio Brussels (a Belgian radio station “aimed mainly at a youth audience”) asked MIRA Public Observatory (at Grimbergen, north of Brussels) “to give Bowie a unique place in the galaxy.” The astronomers “chose seven stars – Sigma Librae, Spica, Alpha Virginis, Zeta Centauri, SAA 204 132, and the Beta Sigma Octantis Trianguli Australis – in the vicinity of Mars. The constellation is a copy of the iconic Bowie lightning and was recorded at the exact time of his death.”

Spica and Alpha Virginis are the same star, and something has been dropped before “Trianguli Australis,” so the “seven” stars have become five. Unexplained are the relevance of Mars and what is meant by “recorded at the exact time of his death,” since that occurred on January 10.

Those garblings will not have been the fault of the astronomers. I doubt they “gazed skyward to find” the seven stars between which they could draw long lines to make the “shape of a lightning bolt”; they will have gazed at charts and catalogs.

The stars they picked range from one of the sky’s brightest (Spica) to one among thousands in a catalog for specialists, thousands of times too faint for the naked eye (SAA 204 132). They are soaced over nearly a quarter of the sky, from near the equator (Virgo and Libra) to near the sky’s south pole (Octans).   “In the vicinity of Mars” means that Mars, for the current week or two, is moving from Virgo into Libra.

centchlt-detailBowie

Part of Astronomical Calendar all-sky chart. Virgo and Libra near top, Centaurus lower south, Triangulum Australe lower again, Octans at bottom. Straight lines are constellation boundaries; curving lines connect some of the stars that form the imaginary pictures.

Mars and its vicinity do not, this month, appear in the sky till an hour or more after midnight. If Bowie fans wish to see the main part of this “constellation” they will have to go outside in the after-midnight hours, or, to see the other tip of it, live in the southern hemisphere and have access to a major telescope.

Fine. It’s a flight of fancy. Those who know something about the sky don’t need to sigh with annoyance unless they hear someone say “Did you know that some stars have been named for David Bowie?” or at the misuse of the word “constellation.” There are 88 constellations, dividing the whole sky between them, and you can’t add to the number. The astronomers of MIRA Public Observatory certainly know this, and we don’t know whether they tried to insist on the correct term, which is “asterism,” and were overruled because everyone’s heard of constellations and no one’s heard of asterisms. What are they, fits caused by star-struckness?

An asterism is any grouping of stars anyone likes to make. The Big Dipper is an asterism because it is only part of constellation Ursa Major; the Summer Triangle, the Winter Hexagon, and the False Cross are asterisms because they connect stars in more than one constellation; there is any number of asterisms that observers have popularized, such as the Coathanger, the Teapot and Teaspoon of Sagittarius, the Urn or Water Jar of Aquarius, the Three Leaps of the Gazelle, the Leaping Minnow.

So there’s no objection to adding the David Bowie Lightning Bolt asterism. Except that you may have to shorten the name if it’s to have more than a week or two of life (the Bowie Bolt?). And that, whereas other vast asterisms can be seen by anybody, and small ones can be seen in binoculars or telescope, there’s no hope of seeing this one at all.

Confession, which Tilly wishes I wouldn’t make, but which I feel to be in the spirit of this less than conventional blog. She found this news item, as others, by surveying online articles. It’s a generous use of her mind, which would not ordinarily be directed toward astrophysics. She is easing me into the use of Twitter. “Come and look at this,” and she reads to me an article about Albert Einstein or David Bowie. From which I have been learning much that I otherwise wouldn’t. You might consider following me @GuyOttewell, and thus be occasionally alerted to other interesting developments between blogs.

 

15 thoughts on “Constellation Bowie? I don’t think so”

  1. “Blood Moon” I suspect derives from the Venerable Bede’s “Reckoning of Time”, where Chapter 15, “The English Months”, includes the Anglo-Saxon “Blotmonað” for November, which can be literally translated as “Blood Month”, a time when Bede describes cattle being slaughtered as a sacrifice to the gods. It’s a short step from there to call it “Month” or “Moon of Blood”, if you’re so inclined. Other European languages (e.g. Wikipedia’s “Germanic calendar” page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_calendar ) suggest Icelandic, Dutch and West Frisian versions all preserve a similar “slaughter/sacrifice/blood”-month name for November.

    Meanwhile the Latin version of Bede’s Chapter 15 is available online at: http://www.nabkal.de/beda/beda_15.html , and there’s an English version-cum-discussion page (not a strict translation, but useful enough) at: http://www.wyrdwords.vispa.com/heathenry/calendar.html .

    Sorry; not very astronomical, I know…

    1. Don’t apologgise for a very useful comment, to which I shall have to refer if I get back to further study of the month-names. I had a less detailed statetement in Astronomical Calendar 2014, November page: “In heathen England it was Blotmonath, “blood month”, because, Bede says, “they sacrificed to their gods the animals they killed” (for winter food and to save on winter fodder).”

      Notice the symbol that Alastair uses for the last letter of the Anglo-Saxon word; it looks like a small Greek delta with a crossbar. Interesting to see that this gets preserved, at least on my monitor; it’s tricky to know what computers will do with unusual characters. The letter, whose name might be written “edh”, and another called “thorn” (looking like a sort of p), represented the voiced and unvoiced consonants which we represent with “th”, as in “then” and “thin”. They are such important consonants in English that it might seem a pity the Old English letters were dropped.

  2. Perhaps what is enlightening (from a psychological aspect) about the “Bowie stars” story is that once again humans wanted to pay tribute with something seen a permanent and which all could see. There is only one set of items available meeting the criteria: stars and other sky objects. This has happened throughout human history. Only some of these named tributes remain in the form we see today of constellations, asterisms, planets named for cultural gods, etc. Even the commercial effort to “sell a star” is an extension of preying on the longing to be remembered with a mark in the sky.

    1. Yes. You can commemorate your love or your hero with a graffito on a rock face or a railway cutting but it won’t be seen far away or last very long. A king was glad to see his wife’s hair become a mark in the sky for all to see forever. A European grateful to Polish king John Sobiesky for saving Christendom from Turkish invasion wished to immortalize him as a constellation, Scutum Sobiescianum the “Shield of John Sobiesky”, but the immortalization lasted only a century or two. There are endless examples, on scales from constellations to asteroids, for Larry’s interesting generalization.

  3. Thank you, Guy. I was also looking for a valid description of what was going on there.

    As best as I can tell, these are the magnitudes and names of the ones they’re talking about, based on the page at http://stardustforbowie.be/, including the locations of the most obscure ones:

    3.2 Sigma Librae

    1.2 Spica == Alpha Virginis

    2.6 Zeta Centauri

    2.8 Beta Trianguli Australis

    4.2 Delta octanis

    5.6 SAO 204132 == http://frostydrew.org/stars.dc/star/id-204132/ not SAO 204 132 or SAA 204 132….
    Right Ascention: 13h 6m 54.263s
    Declination: -35 deg 51′ 42.91″

    4.4 SAO 241641 == http://frostydrew.org/stars.dc/star/id-241641/ not SAO 241 641 or SAA 241641…
    Right Ascention: 14h 20m 19.476s
    Declination: -56 deg 23′ 12.05″

    1. Thank you very much, Neal, for rounding up that information. So the SAO (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory catalog) star isn’t all that faint; it’s near the naked-eye limit. In the deep southern sky, which became studied by north-hemisphere astronomers relatively recently, there are fewer stars with names or designations of the familiar kinds, therefore relatively more with unfamiliar kinds of designation (numbers in catalogs).

  4. Thank you for pointing this out. Ever since I first saw the article about Mr. Bowie’s “constellation”, I have been irritated about the misuse of astronomical terms. Exactly why would they include the position of Mars in the description, since it is always moving?! I understand it is to include a reference to his song, Life on Mars, but it should have been explained much better.

    Sadly, we see this happen in the media all the time. The invention of the term “Blood Moon”, and the reasons the media was calling it such, is another example that truly irritated me. Astronomers frequently say the Moon might turn blood red during a lunar eclipse (since it all depends on what is going on in the atmosphere around the terminator on Earth), but to my knowledge this has never been an accepted astronomical term. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    1. I didn’t know about the song “Life on Mars”. The author of the article may have assumed it didn’t need explanation.
      No, I don’t know of an astronomical term “blood moon”. If anyone does, please let me know, because I’m in slow process of overhauling my glossary book, Albedo to Zodiac.
      Yes, the recurrent spasms of hype and myth-information by the media can be irritating, but they’re sort of fun (except when they cause real fright about tides and earthquakes) and they give us a chance to get a more scientific word out.

    1. Here’s a guess: one of the astronomers, after picking the stars Spica and Sigma Librae, may have remarked that Mars happens to be rpughly between them, and someone from the radio station said “Ah, that must have a meaning!”

  5. He might have been Major Tom in Space Oddity, or Ziggy Stardust with his Spiders from Mars, and even the Man Who Fell to Earth, but if Carl Sagan wasn’t commemorated by at least a single star amongs the billions and billons out there, I’m not sure David Bowie should have a place out there either.

  6. You are right, Guy,

    Maybe “Asterisms” needs to get some popularity among the public!

    If he’s (by some chance )watching, he’s nonplussed OR more likely couldn’t care less!

    Gloria

  7. Thanks Guy. Stars and idols fall more often than we think. I was given a Bowie album, my first, in 1972. IN those days, you couldn’t tell many people that you liked Bowie. Not in Alabama. Of course, not many people gazed at stars there either, and wondered. I did.

    All best and Happy New year to you and Tilly

    Love,

    terry

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