The Clear Black Sky
For those who live in large towns and cities, it is easy to forget
the beauty of the night sky due to light pollution in urban centres.
Fortunately, in Tofino, far from the bright lights you can see the
stars in all
For many sky gazers, the Big Dipper is the most important group of
stars in the sky. For anyone in northern latitudes, it never goes below
the horizon. It is one of the most recognizable patterns in the sky
and thus one of the easiest for the novice to find.
Long ago, when the forms of animals and heroes were pictured against
the stars, a large bear was represented in this particular region.
The fact that the Big Dipper formed a bear to American First Nations
and to cultures of the Old World and Siberia suggests that Ursa Major,
as it is called today, is a star pattern recognized in ancient times.
The name 'Big Dipper' itself has been a source of frustration
to some constellation historians. Who exactly originated this name?
For much of the world this pattern has been, if not a bear, then a
sort of wagon. In France and Germany, it is the "Great Chariot." In
the British Isles these seven stars are known widely as "The
Plough," however, as a long-handled pot or ladle it is strictly
an American usage, first mentioned in 19th century astronomy books,
but apparently not before then.
Incidentally, it is wrong to refer to the Big Dipper as a constellation.
There are 88 groups of stars that are officially recognized and listed
as constellations. The Big Dipper, famous as it is, has no official
status and is only recognized as being a conspicuous part of a constellation
|The Big Dipper
— An Ancient Eyetest
Close to the middle star of the handle, Mizar,
sits a tiny star, Alcor. These two stars are not physically connected
but are in
the same line of sight from the Earth. Consequently, they appear
inseparable, and visually they are, except to a person with perfect
eyesight. They appear to be separated by just 12 arc minutes,
or two-tenths of one degree. That's less than half the apparent
width of the Moon.
Before the age of eyeglasses and oculists' charts, Alcor
used to serve as an eye test. The Persian Al Kazwini stated during
the 13th Century that "people tested their eyesight by this
star." Mizar and Alcor were known as the "Horse and
Rider" to the ancient Arabs. The Arabian writer Al Firuzabadi,
in the 14th Century referred to Alcor as Al Sadak, "The Test" or "The
Why not test your own eyesight by looking for Alcor tonight?