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In my universe the dipper points to the South Star
August 6, 2012 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Batshit insane filter: I recommended to a friend, 1Q84, the best book I've ever read. He loved it. I had lunch with him this week and he said he thought he was in an alternative himself, as one night he looked up at the Big Dipper and it appeared to be backwards, pointing toward the south. Yikes, I had the same experience myself recently. Whats going on here? Is it an astronomy thing or will Tengo and Aomame appear soon?
posted by Xurando to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
...Uh...I'm not clear what your question is, so I'm going to repeat back what I THINK it is and then attempt to answer. You're asking whether the position of the Big Dipper has changed so it points to the South Star. Is that right?

I think it depends on what you mean by "backwards." Do you mean, like, upside-down? (And are you sure you had the Big Dipper?)

Actually, anyway, the Big Dipper isn't always an accurate "pointer" everywhere on the planet; the further south you go, the less accurate it is. Also, the position of the Big Dipper appears to change in the sky depending on what season it is. More info is here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you sure it wasn't upside down? Remember that it appears to rotate around the north celestial pole.
posted by zamboni at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2012


No, we both had the experience of seeing the Big Dipper curve toward the north and point south. I've lived in my house in a rural area with good visibility and recognize the dipper easily. The north star is usually in the same place. I'm not saying it permanently changed but 2 different people one in Vermont and one in West Virginia, independently of each other, had an experience where the Big Dipper appeared to point south. I'd like an explanation.
posted by Xurando at 7:40 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


The big dipper. like all other stars in the northern hemisphere, rotates around celestial north, very close to Polaris. So it can be in any orientation and how it looks will vary according to the time od day and the time of year. The two stars on the end of the "cup" always point toward Polaris, but it the big dipper is very high in the sky they point down in an apparent southerly direction. Since the big dipper (like all stars) makes a complete circle every 24 hours, any other direction is possible as well.
posted by TedW at 7:49 AM on August 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure what you mean either. A line from Merak through Dubhe will point toward Polaris (the North Star) regardless of where the Big Dipper is in the sky. However, the asterism (the Big Dipper; it's not a constellation) will rotate around the north celestial pole. If the Dipper is toward the northern horizon (below Polaris), then if you continue the line past Polaris, it will head south.

On the other hand, if you follow the arc of the handle from Alioth through Mizar and Alcaid, and continue on, you will reach Arcturus. ("Arc Arcturus" is the mnemonic I learned). Arcturus could certainly be toward the southern horizon, and in any case its declination is about 19 degrees north, much further south on the celestial sphere than the Dipper.

I also don't get what you mean when you write that "the north star is usually in the same place" (emphasis added). Polaris isn't quite at the north celestial pole, but it's close enough that for practical purposes it is in the same place. You wouldn't be mixing up Polaris with Arcturus, would you? That's the only explanation I can think of that makes sense, absent mind-altering substances.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:51 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Big Dipper doesn't point north. The edge of the "bowl" points towards Polaris, the north star, but the Big Dipper rotates all around it (from our perspective) during the course of year. At some times, the Dipper will be to the south of Polaris, with the edge of the bowl pointing north. At other times, the Dipper will be to the north of Polaris, with the edge of the bowl pointing south. Your issue seems to be with thinking that the Big Dipper all by itself is useful as a directional aid. It's not.
posted by LionIndex at 7:51 AM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, and by the way, there is no real south star to compare with Polaris--not one that's readily visible except with instruments. But if there were, it would be invisible in Vermont and West Virginia, because it would always be below the horizon.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:54 AM on August 6, 2012


I'd like an explanation.

Wishful thinking.

Sometimes when I've just finished a really good book that I was deeply immersed in, I spend a while still mentally under that book's sway -- I catch myself thinking about the world the way the characters in the novel would perceive it, my own writing takes on the flavor of the author's writing style, etc.

I haven't read 1Q84, but if the big dipper is an important plot point there it wouldn't be at all impossible for you both to temporarily misremember something as subtle as which direction a constellation should be pointing.
posted by ook at 7:55 AM on August 6, 2012


the Big Dipper rotates all around it (from our perspective) during the course of year

I should clarify that this is "at a given time". So, if you were to observe the Big Dipper at the same time every night, it would appear to revolve around Polaris over the course of the year. You could see quite a bit of the same progression during just one night if you stayed up long enough.
posted by LionIndex at 7:57 AM on August 6, 2012


ook: "I haven't read 1Q84, but if the big dipper is an important plot point there it wouldn't be at all impossible for you both to temporarily misremember something as subtle as which direction a constellation should be pointing."

It's not, but -- for benefit of astronomy people reading this question, and without resorting to spoilers -- a simple but massive change in the night sky goes unremarked upon by the vast majority of the population.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:00 AM on August 6, 2012


So, if you were to observe the Big Dipper at the same time every night, it would appear to revolve around Polaris over the course of the year. You could see quite a bit of the same progression during just one night if you stayed up long enough.

You can play around with the "yoursky" website and watch the big dipper rotate around celestial north in the course of 24 hours, pointing north, east, south, and west -- but the rim of the bowl always pointing towards polaris.

Tip: you have the option to turn off a lot of the chart-cruft, and to set the background color, too. I set it to show just stars brighter than 3.0 with their names, and constellations with their outlines and names.
posted by endless_forms at 8:08 AM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Whats going on here?

I can tell you what's not going on: the Big Dipper (part of the constellation Ursa Major) did not temporarily change. The Big Dipper looks like this and will look pretty much like that for some time. As Wikipedia currently puts it, "In 50,000 years the Dipper will no longer exist as we know it, but be re-formed into a new Dipper facing the opposite way." Is this what you're getting at?

Is it possible that you looked at the same part of the sky (same direction and altitude) but at a different time and seen something that looked a little like a reversed Big Dipper? Maybe Cassiopeia? Does that look anything like the Big Dipper curving toward the north and pointing south to you?
posted by pracowity at 8:20 AM on August 6, 2012


You may also have been looking at ursa minor, which is oriented like a 180 degree rotation of the big one.

Alternately, you and your friend may have inadvertently exercised intent to shift your assemblage point in such a manner that the stars reversed. This is the least likely of the possibilites people have presented here.
posted by cmoj at 9:29 AM on August 6, 2012


Did you guys both have this experience after reading the book?

Disclaimer: I know the book in the anecdote I'm about to relate is nowhere near as good as 1Q84, and by relating this anecdote I mean no offense to fans of 1Q84.

I worked in a museum bookshop at the height of The Da Vinci Code's popularity. At least once a day, a group of customers would come in and ask me for a book -- ANY BOOK -- that had a print of "The Last Supper" in it.

So I'd take them back to whatever table or section or what have you, grab that Leonardo Da Vinci monograph we had, and hand it to the most batshit insane member of the group.

He or she would inevitably skim through the book until he/she found the correct plate, and then show it around to the rest of the group, "You see? You see?" he or she would say, "If you look, you can sort of tell that the Apostle John sitting at Jesus' right is actually a woman!!! It's true! Everything Dan Brown wrote is really true! Doesn't that just blow your mind? I mean, THINK ABOUT IT."

All members of the group who had read The Da Vinci Code would inevitably see it. Those who hadn't would politely concur, either out of general interest in the topic or maybe to shut the batshit ones up.

In conclusion: I think the shared experience of reading a novel can sometimes make one notice things about the real world that they otherwise wouldn't have. Regardless of the quality of the novel or the relevance of the phenomenon noticed, I think this is one of the best things ever about reading.
posted by Sara C. at 2:32 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Stumbling across this almost a year later as I get into astronomy, I think brianogilvie has the right idea. When I was a child, an adult once told me the Big Dipper pointed to the North Star, ("One of the brightest in the sky" I was told). Sure enough, the handle of the Big Dipper points to the fourth brightest star in the sky: but it's Arcturus, not Polaris. To locate Polaris, follow the two stars that make the front face of the "pot".
posted by yeti at 12:49 PM on July 15, 2013


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