Tom Burns: The joy of astronomy and mythology

Tom Burns - Stargazing

Last week, we discussed the strange case of Draco, the Dragon. Why did the ancients associate that particular convoluted collection of stars with a dragon of all things?

To answer that question, let’s set the Wayback Machine to a time even before the ancient gods ruled the universe. Their parents were the Titans, a race of horrifying beasts and terrible giants who treated their children badly. As the gods came of age, they fought the tyrannical Titans for supremacy. For over a decade, the heavens and the earth trembled with the clashing sounds and horrific sights of all-out war.

The gods were led by the thunderbolt-wielding Zeus. Among the Titans was Draco, whose hot breath laid waste to enormous patches of land. Where great forests had grown, only deserts stretched for hundreds of miles.

As the battle reached its climax, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, stood in the hot breath of the beast. She knew that the dragon’s heat must be extinguished once and for all, or all would be lost. She seized the dragon by its tail, and heaved it upward toward the frozen wastes of the north.

As the dragon sailed into the great void of heaven, it spun and turned. Its tail was twisted into countless knots. As it struck the dome of stars, it was caught in the sky’s rotation, where it became hopelessly tangled. As the northern cold began to do its work, it was frozen into place. Today, we see the tangled mess as it was millennia ago, when gods and not men fought for supremacy over the earth and sky.

The nearby North Star is positioned directly over Earth’s north-south axis. As the Earth turns once a day, the stars seem to spin once around the pole star. Thus, as punishment for its bad alliance with the Titans, Draco must turn around the frigid north, never setting below the horizon, never dipping into the refreshing waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

A few thousand years ago, Draco wasn’t just positioned to the north. It was north. Because planet Earth wobbles slowly as its spins on its axis, the position of true north against the starry background changes slowly over time. Three thousand years ago, Polaris was not the north star. Thuban, a faint star in Draco, marked the center of the celestial merry-go-round, and thus the star was critically important to our forebears. The Egyptians, for example, lined up their enormous pyramids to the belly of the beast.

That fact provided little comfort to the dragon. As far as the ancients knew, Draco was stuck forever, cold and dizzy as it could be.

It’s a good story, but not my favorite. As I sat with my family watching the movie “Dragonheart” in 1996, I knew that dragons fascinated my daughter, Krishni. Was there a hint in her dimly lit look of purely joy that she would become the Ph.D. classicist that she is today?

In the film, the constellation is a kind of dragon heaven. Dragons have been tasked to protect humanity, and in doing so, their numbers have been reduced to a single champion. In the film’s conclusion, Draco, the last dragon, ascends into the constellation after he saves humanity one last time.

People often ask me why I don’t just stick to the science of astronomy. I’ll grant you that there is a good deal of pleasure to be gained by looking through telescopes and knowing what you are seeing and how it works. But add to that experience the stories that are so old that they almost seem built into our DNA.

Then top it off with your very personal experiences as you stand and look in silence on some warm summer night at a sky filled with familiar stars. The experience of the heavens becomes a confluence of intellect and emotion far more profound than if you have just studied the science or heard the stories.

And thus I can say with certainty that when I stare upward at Draco, reflect on the old stories, and understand the shift of the northern pole from Thuban to Polaris, I experience the sky with a depth and emotional complexity I wouldn’t have had otherwise. When I add the memory of my daughter’s face in that darkened theater, as the last dragon rises to merge with Draco, I ascend with it.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.