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Thursday, December 8, 2016

The more we know, the more we know we don't know

The Orion Nebula
It's an old saying and it's certainly true of many things, most especially those disciplines where we try to peek beyond the barriers of what we can see with our eyes. At the large end of the scale, that's the realm of astronomy. As  equipment has improved, our observable Universe has become larger and larger. This website gives some fascinating figures on how our perception of the universe has developed over time. If you're reading this blog you'll have heard of Hubble and Kepler, and you'll know they are the names of ground (or star) breaking scientists, and also space telescopes. Both the scientists and the telescopes have expanded our knowledge of the universe in ways no one could have expected.

But this blog is about my current work in progress, The Stuff of Legend. The plot centers around an open cluster. Not a particular open cluster - a made up one based on reality. So I did my research and found out that globular clusters are tightly packed (for stars) and gravitationally bound to each other. The stars are the oldest we know of, and because of that wouldn't be likely to have the elements created in super novas. The stars in open clusters are younger. They form in the usual stellar nurseries like the mighty Orion Nebula. From there, they remain in a more 'open' gravitational relationship until they leave home on their own. Our sun was probably part of an open cluster when it was a teenager. You can find out more about open clusters here.

NASA photo of the Pleiades
Probably the best known open cluster is the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. But I didn't want my cluster to look quite like that. I wanted the gas clouds that you see around Orion as part of the legends associated with my cluster, which is known as the Maidens, or the Dancers. So I went back to research, and discovered that an open cluster that had been thought to be part of the Orion Nebula, was in fact a different entity, situated in front of the nebula. Here's the story of NGC 1980.  It was perfect. So my story takes place in a star cluster that has some similarities to NGC 1980.

The second aspect of The Stuff of Legends is myth, and the way the sky conjured up stories. The aboriginal people in Australia thought the stars of the Milky Way (the river of light we see) was a river marked by the campfires along its length. There is a story about the Seven Sisters - and that's what the aboriginal people called them, too. You can read it here. Basically, seven sisters are pursued by a hunter who wants one of them as his wife. The Greeks had their own legends, once again related to seven sisters - and in fact the aboriginal story and the Greek story are remarkably similar. In the Greek version Orion chases the daughters of Atlas. This link takes you to more stories about the Pleiades.

Ancient people explained natural events in ways that made sense to them. But as we became more knowledgeable, we could explain something like the Pleiades in more and more depth. However, there's something deliciously... RIGHT... about the ancient interpretation. The stars of the Pleiades are, you might say, stellar sisters. And the hunter in the sky is Orion.

As Professor Olivia Jhutta (main character in The Stuff of Legend) explains, "legends often arise around a kernel of truth".

Ain't that the truth?

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