The Unicorn of Cetus

In the night sky, when the air is clear, there is a cosmic Rorschach test awaiting us. Thousands of stars, bright and faint, near and far, in a glittering variety of colors, are peppered across the canopy of night. The eye, irritated by randomness, seeking order, tends to organize into patterns these separate and distinct points of light. Our ancestors of thousands of years ago, who spent almost all their time out of doors in a pollution-free atmosphere, studied these patterns carefully. A rich mythological lore evolved.

Much of the original substance of this stellar mythology has not come down to us. It is so ancient, has been retold so many times, and especially in the past few thousand years by individuals unfamiliar with the appearance of the sky, that much has been lost. Here and there, in odd places, there remain some echoes of cosmic stories about patterns in the sky.

In the Book of Judges there is an account of a slain lion discovered to be infested by a hive of bees, a strange and apparently pointless incident. But the constellation of Leo in the night sky is adjacent to a cluster of stars, visible on a clear night as a fuzzy patch of light, called Praesepe. From its telescopic appearance, modern astronomers call it "The Beehive." I wonder if an image of Praesepe, obtained by one man of exceptional eyesight, in days before the telescope, has been preserved for us in the Book of Judges.

When I look out into the night sky, I cannot discern the outline of a lion in the constellation Leo. I can make out the Big Dipper, and, if the night is clear, the Little Dipper. I am at a loss to make out much of a hunter in Orion or a fish in the constellation of Pisces, to say nothing of a charioteer in Auriga. The mythical beasts, personages, and instruments placed by men in the sky are arbitrary, not obvious. There are agreements about which constellation is which - sanctioned in recent years by the International Astronomical Union, which draws boundaries separating one constellation from another. But there are few clear pictures in the sky.

These constellations, while drawn in two dimensions, are fundamentally in three dimensions. A constellation, such as Orion, is composed of bright stars at considerable distances from Earth and dim stars much closer. Were we to change our perspective, move our point of view - with, for example, an interstellar space vehicle - the appearance of the sky would change. The constellations would slowly distort.

Largely through the efforts of David Wallace at the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, an electronic computer has been programmed with the information on the three-dimensional positions from the Earth to each of the brightest and nearest stars - down to about fifth magnitude, the limiting brightness visible to the naked eye on a clear night. When we ask the computer to show us the appearance of the sky from Earth, we see results of the sort displayed in the accompanying figures: One for the northern circumpolar constellations, including the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and Cassiopeia; one for the southern circumpolar constellations, including the Southern Cross; and one for the broad range of stars at middle celestial latitudes, including Orion and the constellations of the zodiac. If you are not a student of the conventional constellations, you will, I

believe, have some difficulty making out scorpions or virgins in the picture.

Tilt CON ST EU ETION S AS S£KN FROM THE SI'S

TW isnilslbiwft) nf (hi? northern sty us hwa frtim the vicinity tif lite Sun or tlin Earth.

We now ask the computer to draw us the sky from the nearest star to our own, Alpha Centauri, a triple-star system, about 4.3 light-years from Earth. In terms of the scale of our Milky Way Galaxy, this is such a short distance that our perspectives remain almost exactly the same. From a Cen the Big Dipper appears just as it does from Earth. Almost all the other constellations are similarly unchanged. There is one striking exception, however, and that is the constellation Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, the queen of an ancient kingdom, mother of Andromeda and mother-in-law of Perseus, is mainly a set of five stars arranged as a W or an M, depending on which way the sky has turned. From Alpha Centauri, however, there is one extra jog in the M; a sixth star appears in Cassiopeia, one significantly brighter than the other five. That star is the Sun. From the vantage point of the nearest star, our Sun is a relatively bright but unprepossessing point in the night sky. There is no way to tell by looking at Cassiopeia from the sky of a hypothetical planet of Alpha Centauri that there are planets going around the Sun, that on the third of these planets there are life forms, and that one of these life forms considers itself to be of quite considerable intelligence. If this is the case for the sixth star in Cassiopeia, might it not also be the case for innumerable millions of other stars in the night sky?

INK rav&rt LI. AT ION S AS SEEN FROM ALPHA CESTM'Sfl

TJif iliTtr 5cnic us vi dved from ihe nwrffl fltilr. Alpha Outihjri. Thr new s(,u in the cixislclluticn uf (\tisrepcia, near (50 dfiicti uelcNti^l Ulilude and 2-5 hoyrr lungiliKlc. is the Sun.

One of the two stars that Project Ozma examined a decade ago for possible extraterrestrial intelligent signals was Tau Ceti, in the constellation (as seen from Earth) of Cetus, the whale. In the accompanying figure, the computer has drawn the sky as seen from a hypothetical planet of T Cet. We are now a little more than eleven light-years away from the Sun. The perspective has changed somewhat more. The relative orientation of the stars has varied, and we are free to invent new constellations - a psychological projective test for the Cetians.

TJif iliTtr 5cnic us vi dved from ihe nwrffl fltilr. Alpha Outihjri. Thr new s(,u in the cixislclluticn uf (\tisrepcia, near (50 dfiicti uelcNti^l Ulilude and 2-5 hoyrr lungiliKlc. is the Sun.

One of the two stars that Project Ozma examined a decade ago for possible extraterrestrial intelligent signals was Tau Ceti, in the constellation (as seen from Earth) of Cetus, the whale. In the accompanying figure, the computer has drawn the sky as seen from a hypothetical planet of T Cet. We are now a little more than eleven light-years away from the Sun. The perspective has changed somewhat more. The relative orientation of the stars has varied, and we are free to invent new constellations - a psychological projective test for the Cetians.

THE CONSTELLATIONS AS SEEN h'HOJM THE SUN

The hrightcrti nars, as mp from the Eanh urul Sun, which not in the vicinity of the North or South Oleua] FoW

I asked my wife, Linda, who is an artist, to draw a constellation of a unicorn in the Cetian sky. There is already a unicorn in our sky, called Monoceros, but I wanted this to be a larger and more elegant unicorn - and also one slightly different from common terrestrial unicorns - with six legs, say, rather than four. She invented quite a handsome beast. Contrary to my expectation that he would have three pairs of legs, he is quite proudly galloping on two clusters of three legs each, one fore and one aft. It seems quite a believable gallop. There is a tiny star that is just barely seen at the point where the unicorn's tail joins the rest of his body. That faint and un-inspiringly positioned star is the Sun. The Cetians may consider it an amusing speculation that a race of intelligent beings lives on a planet circling the star that joins the unicorn to his tail.

THE CONST EL L AT ION'S AS SEEN FROJI TAP CETl

Thii saine- ilnrs a* «en <»n opposite pflJe but fttifi* i-witage point of Tuu Ceti, one of the ncai«t itajS lifce the Sun, In ihc sky of Tuu Ctti. I he Sun « « fourth magnitude iinr

When we move to greater distances from the Sun than Tau Ceti - to forty or fifty light-years - the Sun dwindles still further in brightness until it is invisible to an unaided human eye. Long interstellar voyages - if they are ever undertaken -will not use dead-reckoning on the Sun. Our mighty star, on which all life on Earth depends, our Sun, which is so bright that we risk blindness by prolonged direct viewing, cannot be seen at all at a distance of a few dozen light-years - a thousandth of the distance to the center of our Galaxy.

Ihr p]ii<¡ijo ulxufd Ihn HUiixer 10 í¡w™tjÍI.

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