Tom Burns: The dragon is easy to find


Tom Burns - Stargazing



During my misspent youth, I had a brief but intense interest in chess. I was an indifferent player, however. I achieved the rank of 10th player (“10th board” as they say) on a team of 10 players, and I was quickly knocked off the team by the next person who wanted to be a part of it.

However, I took the game seriously enough to try to memorize a few of the opening gambits, something that all “serious” players do. But my memory has always been poor, and only one of them stuck in my head.

It’s the so-called Dragon Variation, which stayed with me because Russian chess master Fyodor Dus-Chotimirsky named it after a constellation I had struggled to find.

Yes, my friends, we’re talking Draco, the Dragon, here. The dragon is deeply embedded in our culture. From the intellectual complexities of chess to the evil, blood-sucking Dracula to the kindhearted dragon of the movie “Dragonheart,” you can’t escape Draco.

Draco is easy enough to find, even though its stars are not particularly bright. Look straight north about halfway up the sky, and you’ll see Polaris, the North Star. Polaris forms the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, which curves straight upward from Polaris just after dark.

Draco coils around the Dipper. As a result, the constellation is spread out over a considerable patch of sky. Also, its serpentine curves are a bit more convoluted than most constellations. Dus-Chotimirsky named the chess opening after Draco because of the somewhat awkward undulation of the pawns after the first moves are completed.

Of course, not everybody sees a dragon in this rather chaotic assembly of stars. Ancient Arabic astronomers saw a tableau of creatures they called Mother Camels. Two of Draco’s stars represent hyenas that are attacking a baby camel. Four female camels, represented by four other stars in the constellation, protect the babe. The nomads who own the camels are oblivious to the threat. A cooking tripod composed of four more stars nearby collectively represents them.

The best known of the Draco stories has to do with the constellation Hercules, which is rising in the east right now. Most people have some knowledge of his 12 Labors, thanks in part to the old Disney movie.

In one of his labors, he is given the onerous task of stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides. The apples grew on a tree that was a wedding gift to Zeus, the king of the gods, and Hera, the queen. Hera so loved the apples that she commanded one of her nasty pets, the fierce dragon Ladon, to guard them.

According to some accounts, Ladon had 100 heads and he never slept. But such trivialities mattered little to the mighty Hercules. He quickly dispatched Ladon and absconded with the apples.

Hera had many unpleasant qualities, but disloyalty to her beloved pets was not one of them. Because of Ladon’s long service to her, he ended up in the sky as Draco.

However, the Ladon story does not explain Draco’s most famous feature. How did Draco get so bent out of shape? The best explanation comes from the Roman writer Gaius Julius Hyginus from the first century CE. However, you’ll have to wait until next week to hear about it.

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What’s up at Perkins Observatory

Come to one of our Friday night programs at Perkins in June, and, weather permitting, you might get a chance to see the big three of telescopic planets.

Jupiter is in the west. Come see its cloud bands and four brightest moons. Saturn and Mars are in the southern sky. Mars should reveal some surface detail and perhaps one of its polar caps. The view of Saturn in our big Schottland Telescope is a life-changing experience. Rings, no extra charge.

Add to the mix a star cluster of thousands of visible stars and the smoke-ring shape of a dying star called the Ring Nebula, and you will understand why summer is our favorite time to look at the sky with telescopes.

In July, we switch to daytime programs because of the dearth of darkness in the early evening that month. Yes indeed, my friends, Perkins has all the equipment to observe the sun safely. And we’ll also do tours of the observatory and launch rockets, you know, for the kids. The series, called “Celebration of the Sun,” occurs on Saturday afternoons in July. starting at 4 p.m.

For more information or to reserve tickets, give us a call at 740-363-1257.

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Tom Burns

Stargazing

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.