Constellations from other perspectives

The night sky is one of the few things that every pain and culture has in common. Every culture in the world has watched the stars at some point. Astronomy has helped cultures develop, the Vikings and Polynesians used stars to help navigate the oceans. Astronomy helped with the development of the calendar, for instance the mound in Newgrange in Ireland that was used to measure the day of the winter solstice through a small opening where light shines through. As cultures learned about the sky, perhaps they developed stories about the stars, their own constellations.

However, the constellations we learn about these days are Eurocentric. This is because, in the northern hemisphere, the constellations were described by early Greek and Persian astronomers and became part of the lexicon of modern astronomy; especially when the International Astronomical Union used these constellations as a basis to map the sky.

The modern view of the constellations, I.e. Scorpio, Orion, etc. all came from Greek astronomers but other cultures defined their own constellations based on their society's experiences. In particular, First Nation groups in both North and South America developed their own view of the cosmos and their own constellations. For instance, the Mi'kmaq nation of eastern Canada have their own constellations. Coincidentally, in the location of the Big Dipper, the Mi'kmaq define a bear constellation, I.e. where the constellation Ursa Major is found (Great Bear). Based on the movements of this constellation throughout the year, the Mi'kmaq created a myth about the bear to describe the changes of the seasons. I paraphrase the story here from the following sources ( Clark, E. Indian Legends of Canada, 1960 and Dempsey, F. 2008, JRASC, 102, 59).

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The Great Bear and the Seven Hunters

In the spring of every year, the great bear (the four stars of the big dipper) wakes from her hibernation in her and den and she leaves in search of food. While the bear is searching, she is spotted by one of the hunters, chickadee. But chickadee is too small to hunt the bear on his own, so he summoned his fellow hunters for help. Chickadee and his six companions birds chase after the bear, with robin in the lead followed by chickadee, moose bird, pigeon, blue jay, and two owls. (The closest three are the handle of the Big Dipper)

The seven hunters chase the bear across the sky throughout the summer and into the autumn. But, by then the most distant hunters lose the trail of the bear and fall off the chase. First the two owls lose the trail and soon after blue jay and pigeon give up the chase. The remaining three keep trying and by mid-autumn catch up to the bear.

As the three hunters close in on the great bear, she stands on her hind legs to defend herself. Robin aims at shoots the bear with an arrow, but being so close he is covered in splattered blood. He flies into a nearby maple tree to shake the blood off of his feathers. The blood spills onto the trees making the leaves red.

Chickadee eventually catches up to robin and the two build a fire and begin to cook some the bear meat. When the meat is ready the moose bird joins the duo. But moose bird is clever, he knew the others managed to kill bear and it would take time to prepare the meat. If moose bird took his time then he could arrive when the meat is cooked and would not need to do any work. That is why a moose bird shows up at the end of any hunt. Even though moose bird did not help robin and chickadee still shared their food.

Throughout the winter the skeleton of the bear lies on its back, but the its spirit enters another bear waiting for spring when the bear rises again and the hunt begins anew.

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This story hints at the richness of astronomical lore in these other societies. From the story, one can envision how by watching the constellation one could develop a calendar and time the passing seasons. It also hints at similarities with European astronomy in that both groups have a bear constellation, however it is unlikely that any First Nation culture from Canada or Northern US would define a constellation as a scorpion, they would not have experience with scorpions.

As astronomers we seek facts and knowledge about the universe, but we tend to forget (conveniently) that our knowledge is seeded in the Greek tradition and then the western tradition of facts and numbers. There is still much knowledge we can learn by exploring the sky lore of other cultures and by discussing these other traditions encourage other ways to engage with astronomy.

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New Move, New Work

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Astronomy and academia are tough careers, there are not too many job available at any one time and they are in many places. I have finished an amazing three years in Bonn at the Argelander Institute for Astronomy and am now beginning a new job in Johnson City, Tennessee at East Tennessee State University. My new job is a great opportunity to develop into a better astronomer as well as being closer to my family than I was before.

I have been nervous about moving here, Johnson City is not the most famous nor largest city. I really did not know what to expect in living here, except that it is a less urban city than say Nashville or Boston or Bonn. I expected it to be a quiet city and a bit more rural than I have been used to.

But, I arrived to a vibrant city surrounded by mountains and forests. There are trees all around in their autumn finery displaying many shades of red and green. Everyone I have met so far are friendly and outgoing, making me feel at home. The university is scenic with a blue buccaneer as the mascot. My new workplace seems great. It is far from the largest astronomy research group, but the faculty are certainly enthusiastic and productive. I haven’t been there a whole week yet, but research ideas are popping up everywhere. It is an energizing research environment.

So far, it has been a good move, but wow, there were so many things to be done. Thankfully, my lovely wife helped me out and gave me lots of support. I owe her so much. There was the work visa, the social security number, health insurance, etc., I could have been buried alive by paperwork. There was the flight, bringing only a couple of bags and setting up It is mostly done now, and I can focus on new science and astronomy.

I am excited to be working at ETSU, starting new projects understanding massive stars, magnetic fields and polarized starlight, and I look forward to experiencing the local culture and flavor. But, I still don’t understand why the mascot of a university in a landlocked city and state is a blue pirate.
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The Conclusion of the Great Coffee Experiment

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Well, a month ago, I decided it was time to try to save a little money and live healthier... maybe only a little bit healthier. See the past post. The goal was to make a thermos of coffee every weekday morning instead of buying cups of coffee elsewhere. The cost of brewing coffee at home is less than 8€ for the month. On the weekends, I limited myself to one trip to the coffee shop spending about 3€. So for the month of August, I spent about 15€, at most, on coffee out. This is a dramatic difference from my previous habit of spending more than 50€ on coffee every month. Thus, I managed to cut my coffee expenses by 50% and there is still some room for improvement.

Since I gave away the punchline, perhaps I should step back and explain why I am trying to change my personal and spending habits. I spent more than ten years in university, and for five of those years I used student loans to pay for tuition/living costs. Great. The debt load is not too onerous, tuition in Canada is generally much less than that for universities in the US, but I want to kick the crap of this debt and pay it off sooner than later. So for now, I am looking to change my habits to save money here and there to help me with that goal. Yes, I know, saving 25€ per month is not going to change anything overnight, but it is a start. It is not a bad start either, as an extra 25€ per month could mean my debt is paid off a number of months sooner.

So that is the why, now the how. I worked on changing my habits 30 days at a time. For 30 days, I keep track of my coffee purchasing and brewing. By writing down how much I spent, and reminding myself that spending this money is counterproductive to my goals (can you say guilt trip?), then I push myself to make my own coffee. I just had to remember not to try to justify buying coffee out with some excuse. For example, if I buy a Starbucks coffee then I contribute to stimulating the global economy :P. So, I spend one month like this, focusing on my goal, and changing a habit. Better yet, by the end of the month, I don’t really think about brewing coffee at home, it is now part of my morning routine, along with bringing a thermos to work.

There is nothing particular smart or original about my process. I have read blog posts elsewhere using this kind of theme, change your habits or life in some time. And, at least for something small, it worked for me. Next step is to move on to big stuff, and other changes I can make to save more money and gain more control of my finances.


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The Great Coffee Experiment

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I love coffee. Coffee, espresso, lattes, ice coffee, americano, I love it all. I love coffee brewed from Italian or French roast, beans grown in Yunnan, or Columbia or shade-grown organic in Mexico, dark or light roast. I love coffee.

This should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me, or anyone who is just acquainted with me, or even anyone who has walked past me once in the last ten years, because odds are there was a cup of coffee in my hand. Yes, I love coffee. I love the first smell of a fresh pot of coffee, the hot, bold aroma that is a not-so-subtle kick to the head when it tickles your nose. I love the taste, strong, bitter, bold, hot, with a slight citrus-y aftertaste. Oh yes, and the feeling I get after that first mouthful, that subtle perk and shock to the system that tells you sit up straight. Oh yes, coffee is the nectar of the gods.

However, my love of coffee, or addiction (depending on one’s perspective) comes with a cost. I can drink up to 4-5 cups of coffee per day. When I am in North America, buying coffee at Starbucks, or Tim Hortons or an independent coffee shop, that can add up to $5-10 CAD per day. Over 1 month that is up to $100!!!! That is is a lot of money, too much money to spend especially when I can have the same amount of coffee for far less. In Germany, it is better, there is no Tim Hortons and Starbucks is not very convenient. There is coffee at work for 20 or 30 cents per cup, and I tend to drink 5-7 small cups per day. That adds up to about 1-2€ per day. I also tend to go to cafes on the weekend, adding a few more euros to the cost. Much better than North America, but it still adds up to about 40 - 50€ per month.

This isn’t good, it adds up and costs a fair bit of money. So, in the spirit of self-betterment and saving money, I am posing myself a new challenge for the month of August - to brew my own coffee at home six days per week. I still want one day per week to sit in a cafe and chill with a book or work. During the work week, I intend to brew a pot of coffee at home and take it to work in a thermos. On the sixth, I’ll drink at home, or carry a travel mug full of coffee with me.

If successful, I hope that this starts a new habit and saves me money. All things considered, a pound of good coffee only costs 5€, and drinking coffee out is about 3€. Therefore, I would project this month to spend less than 20€ on coffee this month. That is a huge savings!!

So wish me luck! Hopefully in 31 days, I’ll have more money in my wallet without sacrificing my love of coffee.

PS: yes I know, I drink too much coffee. But at least it is not tea :P
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