Friday, 11 October 2013

Constellation upgrade

Every now and then astronomers moan about being mistaken for astrologers. But to be honest, it's not so surprising. Apart from the words sounding rather similar, until surprisingly recently most astronomers doubled as astrologers (even though they didn't believe in it), because that's where the money was. But the other reason the confusion occurs is that astronomers are a sentimental bunch, insisting on hanging onto things long past their sell-by date. You can see that with the reaction to the downgrading of Pluto, but the reason they get in a tangle with astrologers is the way they insist on referring to the ancient constellations.

Of course any astronomer worth his or her salt will point out that constellations have no significance in reality, they are just a pattern in the stars as seen from Earth, and the stars in a constellation are usually nowhere near each other. But the way they still keep using them is as if chemists insisted on putting the chemical elements into classes of earth, air, fire and water. Most of the old constellations have no value and just lend confusion to the science and credence to the woo that is astrology.

Of course, by now, were there an astronomer in the room, she would be piping up, 'Yes, but they are still useful as a reference framework and to help beginners locate stars.' But honestly most of them aren't. A handful are worth keeping. The W of Cassiopeia, for instance, is easy to spot, as is Orion and the Plough. But almost all of the rest with their ludicrously badly fitted animal/human images? Total waste of time.

What we need is for someone to look at a good, clear night sky and identify other readily identifiable geometric patterns, like that W or the shape we see as Orion. Then give those nice memorable names, not that classical stuff. And then we would have constellations that do what they are supposed to do, act as visual pointers, while getting rid of the embarrassment of the association with astrologers and still having those 'twelve signs of the zodiac'. What about it, astronomers? Otherwise you are just encouraging this:

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