Friday, January 6, 2012

Turn Your Eyes to the Heavens

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Turn Your Eyes to the Heavens

Winter provides a special perspective for those who like to observe things in nature. The landscape changes so dramatically by January that objects which blended in are now more prominent and clearly visible.

Snow and ice outline the silhouettes of trees against the winter sky displaying a magnificent view. Birds and other animals can be witnessed in their quest for food and shelter against the cold.

Early man must have learned from the patterns he observed and knew that the sky gave clues to what might happen in the near future.

Across the world, cultures created celebrations to mark major changes in the environment. Of particular interest was the coming of the winter solstice in December. The word solstice comes from Latin words meaning “sun and “stands still.”

Early people faced terrible hardship when the weather was cold and the days were short, so it gave them cause to celebrate the day on which the day light period actually started getting longer.

They were not certain that they would live through the harsh time. They would have slaughtered their cattle and stored the meat. The beer and wine that they had made in the summer would have fermented and been ready to drink. It was time for a feast and mid-winter celebration.

Stonehenge in Great Britain was constructed over a period of time between 3000 and 1600 BC. Theories about its purpose are that it may have been an astronomical observatory, a burial ground, or a religious site. Sunset on the day of the solstice lines up with a particular spot at the relic.

Scientists recently discovered the origin of the stone used to build Stonehenge was more than 100 miles from the ancient monument. Whatever the origin, it stands as proof that man has always paid attention to the sky.

The winter night sky features some of the most fascinating and easily recognized constellations. They include Orion the Hunter, Canis Major the Great Dog, Canis Minor the Little Dog, Tarus the Bull, Auriga the Charioteer, Gemini the Twins, and the Pleiades star cluster.

Greeks looked at the night sky and created stories about gods and mortals who played out their dramas for all to see sparkling in the heavens. They actually believed that the gods placed the stars in the sky to illustrate their legends.

Other winter night sky object that are more visible are the Andromeda Galaxy, the Great Square of Pegasus, Aldebaran, the Seven Sisters. During winter there is less moisture in the atmosphere which makes the stars appear more distinct.

If you decide to do some stargazing, sit in a dimly lit room for a while before you go outside so that your eyes can adjust quickly to the darkness. If you have binoculars or a telescope, you will see more details. Wrap up and take and snack with you.

Turn your eyes from the bight decorations of Christmas to the wonders of the heavens.
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