Unidentified Shining Objects

A former Iowan, now retired in Hartsdale, New York, WEARE HOLBROOK was the creator of the comic supplement feature “Clarence” for the New York HERALD TRIBUNE syndicate.

Every month the local paper publishes a sky map, a big black oval spangled with white specks and a few dotted lines indicating what goes where. Surrounded by news of the international power struggle, the jittery stock market, the highway death toll, and other uncertainties, it is a comforting reminder to us that some things are still definitely predictable.

The sky map is not intended for the guidance of apprentice astronauts but for the encouragement of amateur astronomers, and you don’t even need a telescope to qualify. All you have to do is to get out in an open space on a clear night and look up. But you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and that’s where the sky map comes in. The instructions say you should hold it overhead with the top to the north. Then you find the Pole Star — it’s at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle — and work out from there.

That sounds easier than it is. Assuming that you live in an apartment house, as I do, in order to get a fairly unobstructed view of the firmament you have to take the elevator to the top floor and then climb a narrow stairway leading to a heavy metal door which opens reluctantly. It is very dark on the roof, as you discover when you trip over a ventilator and chin yourself on a clothesline. This darkness is accentuated by the perimeter of parapets which cut off the glow of the light from the streets below. The effect is rather theatrical, and it may be some time before your eyes adjust to the contrast and you realize that you are surrounded by a thicket of television aerials.

Now for the astronomy. Hold the map overhead with the top to the north. (The average city dweller can do this by remembering where the W. street numbers change to the E. street numbers; it’s bound to be either north or south.) The first time I tried it I couldn’t see the map and had to go back after a flashlight. Then I found I couldn’t see the sky with the flashlight on. The only compromise was to do a series of switch-flicks and double takes. By this spasmodic scrutiny I was able to make out the two Dippers, the Pleiades, and a wisp of Milky Way that may have been factory smoke —all of which I had seen many times before.

It was with a disappointing sense of déjà vu that I climbed down from the roof that night. If this were fiction I might say that I bumped my head against a television antenna and saw a lovely collection of stars; but that is a phenomenon that occurs only in cartoons, along with the instantaneous black eye. However, a few flecks of light did float before my eyes, the result of prolonged skywatching in a tight collar.

Under optimum conditions there are supposed to be some six thousand stars visible to the naked eye. But neither of my eyes is stark naked. Except in bed and bath, they bat themselves behind bifocals. Consequently I am faced with the same dilemma posed by skywriting: should one use reading lenses or distance lenses? Either seems not exactly right.

The frustrated stargazer can always find consolation in studying his sky map. In fact, it’s about the only way he can identify the various constellations, for the old boys who named them had far-out imaginations.

The Dippers are reasonably representational, in an angular way: they certainly look more like drinking utensils than like the Great Bear and the Little Bear, which are what the ancient astronomers christened them. And Draco the dragon is a fairly plausible reptile.

But Cepheus and Cassiopeia display about as much resemblance to the characters they purport to represent as a handful of buttons does to a pair of pants; one looks like a shopping bag and the other like a dover eggbeater. As for Bootes the herdsman and Orion the hunter, they seem indistinguishable from Auriga the charioteer or Sagittarius the archer.

According to the textbooks, a great deal of activity is going on up there, in a tableau vivant fashion. For example, Cepheus and Cassiopeia (the shopping bag and the dover eggbeater) were a king and queen who reigned peacefully in Ethiopia until a sea monster named Cetus demanded the sacrifice of their daughter Andromeda. She was chained to a rock to await her doom. But just as Cetus was about to devour her, along came Perseus on his winged sandals. Making a quick deal with the king, who promised his daughter to anyone who would rescue her, Perseus slaughtered the sea monster, won the girl, married her, and they lived happily ever after — separated only by several million miles of interstellar space.

In addition to people and monsters, the constellations embrace quite a menagerie. There are a couple of bears, a team of dogs, Taurus the bull, Pegasus the horse, Lepus the rabbit, Columba the pigeon, Cygnus the swan, Aquila the eagle, Delphinus the porpoise, and Leo the lion. There is also a scorpion named Scorpio who bit the great hunter Orion on the heel and is being pursued by him forever but never caught.

All this static drama in the sky is based on myths which have remained unchanged for centuries. But since 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik I, a number of new actors have appeared on the stage — more than a thousand of them, to be imprecise — including satellites, spacecraft, and assorted fragments. At least a hundred are up there right now, the oldest being the U.S. Explorer I, launched in 1958, and the largest the Echo I, launched in 1960.

Should the dramatis personae of the sidereal sideshow continue to increase at their present rate, a new mythology is likely to develop. Somehow one cannot think of astral deities personified by Gagarin, Titov, Popovich, and other earthy Russians. But it may be only a matter of time until astronomers will have a whole new set of constellations to study, with Cepheus and Cassiopeia dethroned by a team of astronauts named Smith and Jones, Andromeda replaced by the current Miss Rheingold, Perseus by Batman, and the Dippers by Dixie cups. Pegasus, of course, will remain in the heavens as a symbol of petrol rather than poetry.

The title of Gemini, which originally belonged exclusively to Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus, was appropriated last year by Charles Conrad and Gordon Cooper; and the other titles are up for grabs.

But it’s the added starters that complicate the pattern. And if Jane Taylor were alive today, she might very well say,

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder if you are”!