Many of us have fond memories of learning the constellations as a kid: Leo the lion, Taurus the bull, and the Big Dipper. And yet many of the constellations are, to modern ears, strangely elusive. Who, exactly, was Cassiopeia -- and why does that squiggly line represent her? How exactly does Gemini represent the twins, Castor and Pollux?
Writing in the farcical journal Annals of Improbable Research, "Ursula Majors" suggests that it might be time to set aside those archaic constellations in favor of new ones. (Her article was recently reprinted at the website Neatoorama.) "Adolescents have difficulty relating to outdated objects such as harps, herdsmen and flying horses," she writes, "as they are enamored with modern-day conveniences such as cars, computers and coffee shops. It should come as no surprise that fewer and fewer young people show any interest in astronomy." She makes a few proposals for reimagined constellations:
Consider Cassiopeia, which depicts the mythological queen sitting in a chair. I believe that this constellation would be much more palatable to today’s youth if it were reoriented and renamed Handgun.... Likewise, Gemini, which portrays twin brothers Castor and Pollux, would be better served if it were transformed into Cell Phone.
Cell Phone, at least to my eyes, is very vividly discerneble in the photograph above. "If my constellation reformation is embraced by the scientific community," she adds helpfully, "I will supply others." It's a terrible idea, of course, proposed as a joke (although a few enraged internet commenters seem to feel otherwise; one protests, "This is a prime example of why we're stupider as the generations pass!").
It does, however, highlight an interesting fact. The constellations are what they are not, really, because of their visual structure, but because of their improbably long history. (As one character puts it in Jude the Obscure: "The social moulds civilization fits us into have no more relation to our actual shapes than the conventional shapes of the constellations have to real star patterns.") Many date to ancient Rome, where they were described by the astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (a Roman citizen, born in Egypt, who wrote in Greek); others go back to Sumerian civilization. The point of the constellations is that, even if you don't really see them, you can't change them. Other people got there first.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.