I am delighted to share with you, as part of National Non-Fiction November, a blogpost from Colin Stuart, an astrophysicist who specialises in giving talks to children, educating and entertaining them with his knowledge. He published Why Space Matters To Me this year, a great non-fiction book for 7+ years, explaining such pertinent questions as “Did you know you are 90.5% stardust?”
Stars and maps go hand in hand. Rewind through time, back through several millennia, and the average person could not read or write. The printing press and Wikipedia were still a very long way off. There weren’t even sophisticated ways of keeping track of the time. So instead people passed information from generation to generation by telling stories. Some of the most important tales related to mythical creatures seen in the stars, which move through the night sky as the year progresses. Certain stars and constellations rise above the ground at particular times of year, and so teaching your children to plant the crops by these patterns was a way to ensure this vital information wasn’t lost.
And so the ancients took the stories already existing in their cultures and used the night sky as a giant picture book to illustrate them. Tales of princes and princesses, of sea monsters and dragons, unicorns and flying horses are all played out in the stars. Over the centuries astronomers and artists alike have drawn intricate and beautiful maps of these imaginary icons, all in the name of preserving ancient wisdom.
Yet the link between stars and maps is far from restricted to the constellations – the stars themselves help us to draw maps of Earth too. If you look up at the night sky, over the course of several hours you will quickly notice the stars slowly creeping across the heavens. They are not really moving. It is simply that our view of their position changes as the Earth rotates. This is true for all but one star – Polaris. Also known as the ‘Pole Star’ or more commonly as ‘The North Star’ because it sits in a direct line above the North Pole, it barely seems to move as we spin. It is this steadfast nature that has helped humans to navigate for centuries.
If you were standing on the North Pole you would see Polaris directly overhead, at the very top of the sky. But the further you move towards the Equator, the further it sinks towards the horizon. So by measuring the angle between the ground and Polaris you can tell exactly how far up or down you are in the Northern Hemisphere. When intrepid explorers set off in the Middle Ages to chart new lands, they were able to create maps of places they’d been based on knowing their position by the stars.
Space may seem a very separate place to the Earth. But to me that’s just as crazy as saying your heart is completely separate from the rest of your body. It’s all connected. And as humans we learned long ago to use space to our advantage. As we continue to explore the universe we are finding many more ways to improve the lives of people on ground, proving once and for all that space really does matter to all of us.
With thanks to Colin Stuart.