This is the galaxy — the place where the stars and gods hang out. The place I call home. I’m Detective Joe Monday. There are 300 billion stories in the naked galaxy. This week I’d like to tell you one I call “The Case of the Missing Pleiad.”
It’s a tale of rape and seduction, of seven women dragged into the sordid winter nightlife by rich and powerful dudes looking for a good time.
The Pleiades are party girls, no doubt about it. They are the brightest stars in a star cluster that comes out on those long winter nights when the rest of us stay close to home.
They hang out at an after-hours dive called Taurus, the Bull, a constellation high in the southern sky right now.
It wasn’t tough to find. My informant told me to go south on Orion Boulevard and look for the giant statue of the Hunter. Then I hung a right and looked for the big, fluorescent sign in front of the joint, a tipped-over “V” — the head of Taurus. Then I went up the stairs to the right to a small dipper-shaped cluster of six stars. There they were. It was a classy joint in a classy neighborhood.
The ancients called them the “Seven Sisters,” but only six are apparent to the naked eye. Binoculars easily show seven bright stars and dozens of fainter ones. So one of them took it on the lam.
I was hired to find out why.
My snitches, the ancient Greek and Roman poets, knew their names. But that was a long time ago. Today nobody knows which star has which name, and the Pleiades aren’t saying. So modern astro-coppers have assigned them names and numbers.
On the right is Atlas, the star marked “27” on most star mug shots. He’s the big daddy of this brood, the old man to all the Pleiades.
I approached him first, and he spilled his guts after I bought him a couple of shots of nectar, which is what the gods drink.
Here’s what he said: “Listen, buddy, I was one of the top dogs in Olympus, a member of the Titan gang, when this heavy dude called Zeus started muscling in on our territory. Anyway, I got kicked out of Olympus, and Zeus made me hold up the Earth forever. Before I got muscled out, I was married to Pleione, the nymph over there, and we had seven beautiful daughters.”
He pointed to the stool next to him, the star just above him in the sky. In her time she must have been quite a looker; all the nymphs were. But lately she’s looking down in the dumps.
After four or five double nectars, she told me that she used to be a lot brighter. She lived life in the fast lane, spinning around 100 times as fast as our sun. That causes heavy turbulence in her atmosphere. As a result, she periodically spits out a bright shell of hydrogen gas.
“So you’re the lost Pleiad?” I asked.
But by that time she was lying face down in a bowl of nectar nuts and didn’t reply.
I next observed Asterope, the faint double star marked as “21” on most starmug shots. I told her I thought she might be the missing Pleiad because she was so faint that I had to use binoculars to see her. “Listen, bub,” she said. “If I’m so faint now, what makes you think that those ancient Greeks could see me?”
She had a point, so I turned to her sisters Maia (No. 20) and Taygeta (No. 19), who were sitting next to each other.
“We were seduced by Zeus, the main man up on Mount Olympus,” Mala told me. “So was Electra over there,” she said, pointing to the star at the bottom right of the dipper. “I gave birth to Hermes, god of the hunt. Taygeta here had Lacedaemon. He founded the ancient Greek city of Sparta.
“Electra over there is more likely. She gave birth to Dardanus, who founded the city of Troy. When the Greeks wasted it in the Trojan Wars, some say she hid her eyes so she wouldn’t have to witness the carnage.”
I turned to the brightest of the sisters, Alcyone. What a knockout! She’s the upper-right star in the bowl of the dipper. She sidled up to me on the bar stool and said, “It wasn’t me, handsome. I’ve always been the best-looking and most visible sister. I’m a blue-white giant with a luminosity rating over 1,000 times the sun. Nobody’s ever had trouble seeing me!”
She said that she and her sister Celaeno (#16, sitting between 19 and 17 on the mug shot) had been “ravished” by Poseidon, the god of sea. “I heard Celaeno got struck by a bolt of lightening from Zeus, and that’s why she’s so faint,” Alcyone muttered seductively.
I looked at Celaeno. She was just at the limit of naked-eye visibility and was a prime suspect.
Next I checked out Merope, at the bottom left of the dipper. She denied being the lost Pleiad.
“That’s not what I heard.” I said. “One of my snitches, a Greek poet named Eratosthenes, told me that all your sisters hung out with gods. You’re the only one who married a regular mortal, a loser named Sisyphus, who ended up in Hades rolling a rock up a hill for all eternity. So you hid your face in shame because you didn’t hook a high-class husband.”
“Yeah, well, I’m the best dressed,” she said. I got out my telescope and took a closer look. She and most of her sisters were enveloped in a faint cloud of nebulous gas. Hers was the brightest.
“We’re hot, young stars,” she said. What you’re seeing is a cloud of gas through which we are passing. Our light reflects off the gas and causes it to glow. Pretty, huh?”
While I was putting my eyes back in my head, she snuck off.
“What a bunch of losers,” I said to the bartender.
“Don’t be so hard on them,” he said. “They’ve had rough lives. A lot of folks say that they ended up in the sky because Orion was going to ravish them. So Zeus took pity and turned them into a flock of doves. When they reached the sky, they turned into stars.
“But that’s not the straight dope,” he continued. “They volunteered to be here. When they heard that their father Atlas had to carry the whole world on his shoulders, they offered to be put in the sky so he would have that much less weight to carry.”
That night, I took the long way home, past the Milky Way, around the universe. As I flicked my last cigarette into the darkness, I was haunted by their stories — of seven sisters who suffered much but made the ultimate sacrifice to ease their old man’s burden.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.