The Big Dipper is an asterism that forms the tail and the flank of the constellation Ursa Major or Greater Bear. To most ordinary folks, the Big Dipper isn’t really all that well known. Especially folks who don’t really make it a point to gaze in awe and wander at the stars but instead prefer to keep their noses on the ground.
Not like, say, Orion. Locally, we know the Hunter’s belt as Tres Marias and it is visible in our night sky throughout most of the year. That makes it kind of hard to miss even for those who look up at night only because the moon’s light fleetingly caught their attention.
And especially not like the twelve signs of the zodiac (don’t get me started on the 13th). Ask anyone on the street what their sign is and chances are they know what it is. I sincerely doubt however if even the most fervent believer in astrology can tell you where their own sign is in the sky.
Generalized predictions and self-fulfilling guides to our own characters aside, the zodiacs and the other constellations, do serve a useful purpose. It’s just that for most of us, it’s purely academic. The constellations are “locators” in the sky. For example, the first ever extra solar planet discovered is called 51 Pegasi b, a planet 50 light years away as big as Jupiter but hotter than Mercury. It was christened Pegasi because, you guessed it, it can be found in the constellation Pegasus. Like I said, academic.
Another use of constellations – and this is the one that makes the Big Dipper a bit of a curious rarity among constellations – is that they are “pointers.” There are two stars in the Big Dipper called Merak (an Arabic word meaning flank) and Dubhe (yet another Arabic word meaning, in polite company, “back-end”). If you draw an imaginary line connecting Merak to Dubhe and extend that line further out, your eyes will inevitably land on the star called Polaris, more popularly known as the North or Pole Star.
Polaris is called true North in reference to magnetic compass North which in actuality is off by a few degrees and seconds (locally it is off by approximately one and a half degrees to the west). That may not seem like much but when you extend those few degrees a couple hundred miles, it adds up. Before you know it, you’re lost in the middle of the ocean’s vast expanse with absolutely no idea how to get your bearings. Oblivious to the cumulative arc seconds, seconds, and degrees, one day you wake up and ask yourself, “How did I get here?” – the proverbial frog in slowly boiling water.
The thing about Polaris locally is that it lies just right above the horizon. You know that it’s there, but you can never seem to make it out because of the ambient light. Like the dreams and the hopes that we all have; we can almost taste it, almost reach it, but somehow not quite touch it; perpetually just beyond our grasp.
If I seem to be waxing poetic bordering on the cliché-ish, one thing you have to know about backyard astronomers is that we are all syrupy dreamers. Why and how else would we be happiest standing alone, with just two dogs for company, on an open creepily dark vacant lot carpeted with carabao grass, braving the wind chill or suffering the humidity, just to stare at the stars. And do so every, single, night (except if there’s cloud cover) that it’s become almost like a compulsive routine.
First, I would walk my two dogs Spock and Molly out. On the way out the door, I will grab my binoculars and hang it around my neck. Once Spock and Molly have done their respective number ones and twos, I would look up and if the sky is clear, whisper a greeting to my long-time friends: Orion (The Hunter), Lepus (the Hare), Gemini (the Twins), Monoceros (the Unicorn), Taurus (the Bull), and of course the two dogs of Orion, Canis Minor and Canis Major.
Looking at Canis Major, my eyes would almost instinctively fix on Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky which by some quirk of fate – most probably design, of the human kind – forms the nose of the Greater Dog. On seeing the two Canis constellations, I would pat Spock and Molly’s head to sort of tell them that I was looking at their constellations: Canis Minor to Spock, my small and hyperactive Irish terrier, and Canis Major to Molly, my overweight Golden Retriever.
I will then turn my head about 90 degrees to the left to look at the Big Dipper. Automatically, my eyes would wander towards Merak and Dubhe, and then almost automatically again, my eyes would form the imaginary line connecting these two stars directing me to the North Star.
It’s right about this point when the poetic waxing begins to peak. Merak and Dubhe always reminds me of my wife and I. Me, Merak and she Dubhe. In the same way that the line from Merak to Dubhe points North, the line connecting me to her always leads me in the right direction.
Mind you, my wife is not my true north, not even my magnetic north. (I’m a syrupy dreamer not a sappy romantic.) Without her for me to point to however, I would be lost. And like Polaris, neither of us alone can quite see where the North Pole star is because of the ambient light. Together however, we know we’re heading North. That’s what our 25-year marriage today has been about all along – the direction, not the end point.
Because of the precession of the earth’s rotational axis, 3000 years ago, the North Star was not Polaris but the star Thuban in the constellation Draco (The Dragon). Fast forward another 3,000 years – about a thousand years from now – and Polaris, like Thuban before it, will cease to be the North Pole star. It will be replaced by the binary star Errai in the constellation Cepheus (The King).
My wife and I will be long past by then. Past, but not gone. On September 16 3000 AD, we will celebrate our 1,025th wedding anniversary. Only this time, we will do it not among the stars, but as the stars themselves.
It is from stardust whence we came, and it is to stardust that we will return.