Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Astronomical Baloney

Astronomical  baloney often shows up unexpectedly. The other night, I was watching the first show (the pilot) of “Warehouse 13,” a SyFy Channel series now on DVD. In one scene, Pete, the hero, is gazing skyward into the night sky in South Dakota and says something about seeing Leo, Cygnus, and Sagittarius.  According to the online character profile, Pete “has extensive esoteric knowledge, including popular culture and astronomy.”

Most viewers probably didn’t know or care a fig about the constellations that Pete mentioned. However, it came into my ears like hearing a novice attempting to play the violin. Something was definitely off key.

So, I asked myself: Is it actually possible to see Leo, Cygnus, and Sagittarius at the same time? The answer is, not really.

Sagittarius is a summer constellation that is located by looking southward. Leo is a spring constellation that sets in the west by the time Sagittarius becomes fully visible. And, the constellation Cygnus is found in the northern half of the sky.

Obviously the writers were not intentionally making Pete look like one of those fakers who merely pretends to know something about astronomy, or who was randomly name-dropping constellations in a failed attempt to impress Myka. Because, if so, since she is the bookish one, having grown up in a bookstore, she would have spotted his balderdash and immediately challenged him. So, why did Pete name those three particular constellations? There is nothing that logically or visually connects them.

I suspect that it was the writers who were just randomly name-dropping constellations…. Just think: they could have chosen Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila, the three constellations in the “Summer Triangle.” Or they could have name-dropped the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle: Vega, Deneb, and Altair. At least those names have logical and visual connections.

 Astronomical baloney also popped up in Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, which I reread recently. I expected better of this author who, for many years, was a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio.

The first astronomical blunder Enger made was on page 117 when he wrote that as evening fell, “Stars were appearing. Venus in the east.”  (Italics added.)

The immutable astronomical facts are these: Any time that Venus is visible in the evening, it is always seen in the west, never in the east. The only time that Venus can appear in the east is in the morning.

The second astronomical mistake Enger made was on page 224. Enger has Reuben seeing the “blue disk” of either Venus or Jupiter in the South Dakota sky just after midnight in the winter.  

Two problems. First of all, Jupiter does not appear to be blue; it looks more yellowish.  

Secondly, it would be impossible to see Venus at midnight in the winter in South Dakota. Perhaps south of the Arctic Circle in northern Alaska during the summer, you might possibly see Venus at midnight, because Venus is found during the twilight near the sun. This obviously could never happen in South Dakota in the winter.

A suggestion for Enger: The most noteworthy star in the winter skies suitable for determining general direction would be Sirius (found in the southern half of the night sky). Also, some easily spotted winter constellations can help with direction: Orion and The Big Dipper. Traditionally, the Big Dipper and the North Star/Polaris in the Little Dipper are used to establish the direction north. In the early 1960s (the timeframe of the story), every kid in Minnesota knew that. I knew that (I was there). Reuben, who was a kid from Minnesota, would have known that.

For some reason Enger seemed fixated on Venus: Two references to Venus – both of them inexplicable nonsense. Astronomical baloney.