Talk Description to Me

Episode 67 - Constellations

September 04, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 67
Talk Description to Me
Episode 67 - Constellations
Chapters
1:24
Constellations
7:53
Figures in the Sky project
18:02
The Milky Way
21:22
The Zodiac
Talk Description to Me
Episode 67 - Constellations
Sep 04, 2021 Season 2 Episode 67
Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

Constellations are delightful and magical; a curious mix of astronomy and fantasy.  They are also a cross cultural phenomenon, with groups from around the world using their own stories to construct and name connect-the-dot pictures in the night sky.  This week, Christine and JJ use Astronomer and Data Visualization Designer Nadieh Bremer's innovative "Figures in the Sky" project to explore and describe the look of constellations.

For more on Figures in the Sky, visit: https://figuresinthesky.visualcinnamon.com/

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Constellations are delightful and magical; a curious mix of astronomy and fantasy.  They are also a cross cultural phenomenon, with groups from around the world using their own stories to construct and name connect-the-dot pictures in the night sky.  This week, Christine and JJ use Astronomer and Data Visualization Designer Nadieh Bremer's innovative "Figures in the Sky" project to explore and describe the look of constellations.

For more on Figures in the Sky, visit: https://figuresinthesky.visualcinnamon.com/

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed-out in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

If you've been listening to our podcast long enough, you'll know that I'm a big astronomy buff, and constellations are something that I find really interesting, partly just because they're astronomical phenomena, but also because they're social constructs. It's people looking at the sky and finding patterns. And so we've thought we would talk about constellations and a very interesting visualization that's been done that talks about constellations, if I understand correctly from different cultures, and how different cultures have view the night sky. So, JJ, can we just start in general with some context about constellations, so particularly for people who've never had vision, the idea of a constellation I know from talking to some people is a little bit abstract. So maybe we could solidify that a bit first.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. So constellations essentially are connecting the dots. So the stars being the dots, and the connections are imaginary lines between them so that you create shapes or objects, or, you know, animals or heroes, whatever it is that it is you want to find. Now, the thing with the with the sky, obviously, is, it's full of stars, it's full of those dots. And in some of them are brighter, some of them can be seen in, you know, even when there's a little bit of cloud and they can, they're, they look a little bit different. You know, depending on where you are in the world, your perspective, your point of view changes a bit. And so you can choose any number of dots with which to make your connect the dot picture. But interestingly, because of how bright some of these stars are, because of because of how close together some of them are. And just because of some natural patterns that are a little bit more easily discernible. Lots of these different constellations, these connect the dots, pictures, overlap between cultures, which is quite fascinating. But that's essentially what they are, they're just connect the dot pictures using using stars as dots. If you have that super clear sky, in very dark conditions, and there's no moon, the experience of looking at the stars is completely different than if you have a little bit of cloud cover. Or if the moon is a little bit bright, or there's some light on the ground, because you get to see different layers. And I think depending on how how deep the layers of stars that you're seeing are the more in some ways difficult it is to pick out these constellations because the sky is you're just overwhelmed. There are too many, too many stars bright or dim, or otherwise, there are a whole range. And when you're kind of in that middle ground, that's when you that's when you have lots of dots to choose from to create your constellations. But the ones that you're seeing are nice and crisp and clear. And I think that's I'm guessing that's when a lot of these constellations are are easier to find and, and easier to create, basically.

Christine Malec:

I want to ask a couple of context questions. And stars are they all the same color from Earth?

JJ Hunt:

Hmm. From here, they are more or less to the naked eye. More or less, you'll get you'll get like the reddish color in Mars. And they're, you know, Beetlejuice they talk about being as red supergiant, but you don't really get a red quality from it. Seeing it from the ground with the naked eye. I'm sure as someone who has, you know sensitive equipment and trained I could find different color quality to it, but essentially they look they just look like sparkles sparkly white objects, like little little sparkly white dots.

Christine Malec:

Do they flicker?

JJ Hunt:

They do. They do. They tend not to flicker in a dramatic way like not flicker like a flame. But there can be on the brightest of stars a little bit of light movement, just the tiniest little bit of flicker. So again, not not dramatic, not like firecrackers sparkle, nothing like that. Just a tiniest little bit of flicker to them.

Christine Malec:

You may not have an answer to this, but if you were to be in a desert, say, where there's no light pollution versus up on a mountain, so to clear skies, but at really different altitudes is does that look different?

JJ Hunt:

It does. What's mostly going to look different is where you are on the planet? Not Not Not your height, like not how high how close you are to the sky, the sky changes based on where you are. So when I'm when I was looking at doing some of these descriptions, I wanted to say the upper right, the upper left hand like no, no doesn't. That's tricky, because they shift they move our planet shifts and moves depending on where you are in on the planet. Looking at these guys, your perspective is different. So it gets a little bit complicated.

Christine Malec:

And the night sky changes from season to season at the same location, right?

JJ Hunt:

Absolutely. Yeah, day to day, you know? Yeah, absolutely. It's it is different. You know, there are folks who photograph the sky at night, have a real understanding and appreciation of this and they've got it all lined up. So there are photographers that wait for that moment, when, you know, this happened recently where the Mars was going to be bright and low in the sky. Yeah, and it was going to be from certain angles in Toronto, where we are, you could capture an image of the CN Tower with Mars at the same time. And so there were a whole there's a whole wave of folks online posting these beautiful images that they've captured of, you know, Mars, beside the CN Tower and Mars, it does have a, you know, again, you put the filter on correctly, and you can see the red in that little.in the sky, it's, it's pretty cool.

Christine Malec:

I saw something on Twitter, that for the next couple of weeks, the sun aligns with the grid pattern of the streets in Toronto's from east to west. And so that at sunset, particularly I think it is the on the east west streets in Toronto, the sun looks like right down at the end of the road. I thought that was so cool!

JJ Hunt:

Ya, ya. It disappears behind the horizon straight on the road. Yeah, it's really difficult to drive in those moments by the way.

Christine Malec:

Oh ya!

JJ Hunt:

Driving right into the sun.

Christine Malec:

Right into the sun!

JJ Hunt:

It's really difficult to see. If you're if you're out of the car -- Beautiful.

Christine Malec:

So so let's talk constellations, um, this visualization that we're going to discuss it floated by on Twitter and I was completely captivated. And so as I do, I just, I flicked them off to JJ. I'm like, hey, let's do this. And can we do this on port JJ gets bombarded by all of my like little whims of can we can we describe this? But this was one that JJ actually yeah, this is great. Let's let's talk about this. So can you describe what the image is attempting to do?

JJ Hunt:

Yes, this is really cool. So it's an astronomer named Nadieh Bremer, I believe is how you pronounce her name. And she is an astronomer and data visualization designer. And so she's got this website, she and her team have a website. And the article that you had sent me was called figures in the sky, I believe we can link to it in our, in our description. And the the kind of tagline was how cultures across the world have seen their myths and legends in the sky. And what they did was they mapped the constellations of 28 different cultures. And these are cultures that range from what they call the modern quote, unquote, modern Western culture, Chinese, Maori ,Aztecs all over the world. And they assigned a different color to each culture. And I mean, there's so many that the the various shades of color can be a little bit tricky to differentiate, but 28 different cultures, each with its own color. And then they would focus on a particular area of the sky, where many different cultures have a constellation, and then layer all of those on top of each other. And so you could click through either to look at an individual culture or, or you could look at all of the shapes mapped across the various stars in a certain area or region and and see the different shapes of different cultures would see.

Christine Malec:

Wow.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, very cool.

Christine Malec:

So you could just pick one point in the sky.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah. And they will they had kind of chosen important stars or stars that are really represented in lots of cultures. So for example, Beetlejuice Beetlejuice is a red supergiant and it is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. So not surprisingly, it has been used in lots of different constellations. 17 of the 28 cultures have a constellation that involves beetle juice. It's most commonly known to us in the West, it's part of Orion, the constellation of Orion who wears the belt. let's describe the basic shape of Orion that's probably helpful. The core element of Orion is a vaguely rectangular shape, with stars at each of the four corners, and then it's pinched in the middle by a belt, so it kind of narrows in the middle as if it's a torso with a belt. And it's pinched in the middle by a belt of three stars on a on a slight angle. So it's very distinctive. These three bright stars side by side, boom, boom, boom. And then the shoulders are our stars and kind of the hips essentially would be two stars as well. And the shoulder that is, here I am I'm going to say it upper left. That's Beetlejuice. That's the Beetlejuice star. And that basic shape, as I say we call it Orion. The Arabic constellations, they refer to it as the giant. It's called the throne in Belarus. In Egypt, it's known as the God saw, the Hawaiian star lines refer to that as the cat's cradle. The Sardinian culture calls that the sticks. And in some of those constellations, of course, that there are there's not just those stars that I've mentioned, there are stars around it that get pulled into the image. And so in some cultures, there's, that figure has an arm out and is and is wielding a bow. In others, they, they have created a version of that constellation where the character is wielding a staff or maybe aside my personal favorite. That was part of this, this diagram is the Indian constellation. That is actually just Beetlejuice. It's just a single point constellation, just one star. And they call it the moist one.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

And I coulda looked it up, I could have looked it up, I could have researched it. And I decided I don't want to, I just want to know that it's called the Moist one!

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha! I totally honor that choice. I love maintaining the mystery of some things.

JJ Hunt:

Ha ha ha.

Christine Malec:

Let's move on to a different part of the skies or another area. I love that layering of where one one group is, is interpreted differently. So is there other examples you

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, the Big Dipper, I think the Big Dipper is the most can give of that? universal constellation. In part because it is so it's so clear, I mean, very much the Big Dipper looks like a pot with a long bent handle. And it's clear in even in a sky that doesn't have a lot of stars, even if you've got a lot of light pollution, the Big Dipper is relatively clear. And the star that marks what would be the upper corner of the pod the bowl of the pot opposite the handle, that star is called Dubhe. D U BH E. I'm not sure about the pronunciation there. And there are 20 different cultures that incorporate that star into a constellation and 17 of those 20 share basically the that pan or pot shape. So it's so clear. But what's interesting is, you know, we call it the Big Dipper because it looks like a you know a pot that you would dip into a bucket of water right or something like that, or a pot or a pan. And even though it's the exact same shape that's been identified by all of these different cultures, they recognize it as something else. They don't necessarily say it's a pot or a pan, they call it something else. So it's recognized as an elk. As a caribou. It's recognized as a bull's four leg. The Mongolians call it the seven Buddhas well in the sardinians call it the seven brothers and the Chicano people which is an indigenous South American group. They call it the snake's large anus.

Christine Malec:

[Whistle]

JJ Hunt:

And the Macedonians call the pot a group of organized thieves.

Christine Malec:

Oh.

JJ Hunt:

I don't know why. But this is all the same shape being interpreted in different ways by different cultures.

Christine Malec:

So some of those like the group of thieves or something those are kind of abstract but the elk like do you see an elegant there?

JJ Hunt:

I don't I really don't. Now the bowls for leg. If you don't imagine that there's a top on this pot. So it's you know, if you've got a bowl, you can imagine just drawing with your finger, you've got the bowl of a pot, and then you've got a handle that's connected to it and the handle kind of bends. So if you're just looking at as a single line, and not thinking of boat that as a as an outline of a shape, then that single line then maybe you can start to see a leg from an animal and again, depending on where you are on the planet, and and how the skies are the skies aligned, maybe that pot is not horizontal, maybe that's vertical. And so that shape starts to look like something else. It looks like an animal's for leg or something like that. You can see why it would be I mean, the snakes anus, I guess is the that one star that we mentioned do pay is the brightest there. So maybe it looks like a long snake. And then with the brightest spot near the end, why they didn't say it was the head, I don't know. And then why it's called the group of organized thieves. I mean, maybe that's from I'm guessing that's from a story is part of the culture but how it fits in I'm really interested in why the the seven Buddhas and the seven brothers. I mean, obviously, there's probably seven stars involved. But again, really interesting that that's how you would choose to identify this thing. It almost every culture has got something like a pot with a handle, right? So how do the cultures that decide to go beyond the literal and and bring story into it? It's, it's really interesting. Yeah.

Christine Malec:

When you're scanning through the image, and if you just look at the words, do you see themes of a particular aspect of life that cultures choose to see represented

JJ Hunt:

Lots, lots of gods, lots of animals. And some overlap there of course between animal with animal gods and such. I think those would be the most, the most common. So just looking at the ones from Beetlejuice. So we've all just read through some of the names for constellations that are and again, these are these are the English interpretations of those names, obviously. But you've got everything from we got the old man the ads handle sticks, winter maker, the slim one plow man, Sam, the investigator, to placed far apart the moist one. The cat's cradle saw buffalo embryo, three stars, the throne the giant and Orion. So there's there's lots of gods, a couple of animals like the buffalo embryo cats. I mean, the cat's cradle that's an interesting one that's a Hawaiian star lines the cat's cradle. Yeah, there's a real range but I would say animals and Gods Gods Gods Gods, lots of gods.

Christine Malec:

Yeah. I feel like I'm really indulging myself here but could you talk about the Milky Way in the night sky?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah.

Christine Malec:

Can you describe the visual impression of it sorry, I'd have we didn't discuss this one but I'm just really curious.

JJ Hunt:

Not at all. I'm the Milky Way is... frankly I don't get to see it as much as I want... I would love to be having more time with the Milky Way and that kind of night sky. It's rare. Especially if you live in a city to get to get to a place where you have no light pollution because you can only see the Milky Way. If you are free of light pollution. Even the even the most mild light pollution will wash away that effect. But if you are in a truly dark place, and the sky really is clear, and the moon is gone, it the Milky Way is extraordinary for me. That's what that's what takes me from wow aren't aren't I small, too, aren't we small? Because when I am when I am looking up at just an ordinary sky full of stars, that's impressive. And you feel you do feel small. But you know we are one of those stars we're one of those dots and in my brain can almost understand that. The planet I'm on is just like those dots and I can kind of get that. But then you get the Milky Way. And it's a it's a band and you can see the you can see the band of it. It's the there's a shape to it because of the angle at which we are seeing the edge of the of the Milky Way You can see depth and you can see that there is there are lights that are further away and there are lights that are closer these little dots and there There's a cloudiness to it. And there's so there's so many of these dots, that it's that it's a slightly brighter part of the sky. And there's something about that depth, that seeing even further, even farther beyond what we currently have around us what our current understanding is, to me, personally, that's when I start, that's when I really get overwhelmed with scale, right? Because it's it that just keeps going, I thought I saw the end of it. And then and then there's more and more and more, and there's an infinite quality to seeing the Milky Way, that maybe I don't feel as much seeing a normal starry sky, maybe because it's represented too easily in, in my life and images. And, you know, I don't I I'm in the city, I don't get to see the starry sky very often. But you know, it's there, there are some stars in the sky, I get that I intellectually understand the vastness of the different shades of space, the different shades of blue, dark blue, and some lighter blue, in the in all of the glow of the stars coming together is Yeah, it's it's just a whole other level.

Christine Malec:

The signs of the zodiac those are based on constellations, right car, do you? Are they popularized in a particular visual way? Or are they just representations of the constellation? Like, I don't know how. So? I don't know. Like in the newspaper when you have a horoscope? Like, is there a picture of a fish beside Pisces?

JJ Hunt:

Oh, yeah.

Christine Malec:

Do they have popular representations,

JJ Hunt:

They do. So there are there are both constellations that these signs come from, that the images come from, and then there are modern interpretations of those as well. So you know, Taurus, the bull is a bull, in a lot of, you know, modern renderings. The Taurus that is in a constellation in the sky, has something that would look like, more or less two horns, and then they come together at a point, that is a brighter star, so I guess, then you would see, you can see bull horns there. But Leo, the lion, you know, you'll often get some version of a drawing of a lion, you know, the lion and profile or whatever the constellation itself is sure, if you were really going to use your imagination, you could see that there's a kind of a body of an animal and in a curve of a couple of stars that might represent a head. So you know, sure, I guess if if you want to find a lion in there, you can. So most people, I think, who would be identifying with their zodiac sign these days, in a casual way, are going to be looking at less the star versions of those signs, and more either graphic representations or, or other or other letters from different from different alphabets and signs from different alphabets.

Christine Malec:

Are they sufficiently stylized that there's maybe one or two or three accepted graphics for them? Or is it just the kind of thing where you'd see if a fish in a particular context and know that that means Pisces?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, I wouldn't I probably wouldn't recognize most of these I mean, if you put a lot of them together, like for example, if I saw a bunch of these symbols, and I saw a bull next to a crab next to a lion right next to a scorpion, I'd probably go all okay, I bet we'll be doing is the summary by just saw an image of a crab I wouldn't necessarily go "Ah, that's cancer."

Christine Malec:

Got it. Okay.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah.

Christine Malec:

Okay. Well, thank you. That was an amazing trip around the galaxy. My gosh, that was... [sigh]

JJ Hunt:

Heh heh.

Christine Malec:

Have questions, suggestions or things you'd like us to cover? Here's how to find us. Our email address is talk description to [email protected] We're on twitter at talk description. And our Facebook page is unsurprisingly titled talk description to me

Constellations
Figures in the Sky project
The Milky Way
The Zodiac