the clear black sky

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 their grandeur.

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 (Ursa Major).

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 Riddle."

Why not test your own eyesight by looking for Alcor tonight?

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