Recently, my wife and I visited our daughter, Krishni, and her newly-purchased house in Chicago. She is settling into her teaching position at the University of Illinois, Chicago, as a teacher of Roman history, Latin, and classical studies.
These days, she knows the old myths and legends of the constellations with the poise of a classics scholar, whereas I am only a dilettante. As I stood in the front room of her beautiful 110-year-old home, my mind wandered back to a conversation we had nearly three decades ago.
She was six years old. “What are you writing about, Daddy?” she asked, as I stared at the blank computer screen.
“I want to write about the constellation Pisces, but I can’t think of anything.”
“What’s a Pie-seez?”
“It’s two fish high up in the southeastern sky just after the sun goes down.”
“Like Rainbow and Fin-Face?” she asked, referring to our two tropical fish, which she had the solemn responsibility of naming.
“You’re probably wondering how two fish got up in the sky.”
“Uh-huh,” she said doubtfully.
I began to talk and, at the same time, type furiously.
“In places like ancient Greece, the stars in the southern sky seemed to rise and set out of the water, so the people named the constellations after things that lived in the ocean.”
“Like fishes!” she said.
“Like fish. Fish were very important to them because they provided food.”
“Ick. They ate fishes like Fin-Face?” Fish are not a preferred comestible around our house.
“They were bigger fish. Anyway, Venus and Cupid were sitting by the Euphrates.”
“Were they fishes?”
“Not yet. Anyway …”
“What’s a You-fraid-eez?”
“It was a river in the ancient land of Babylonia,” I explained. “The Babylonians had fine cities even before the Greeks and Romans.”
“Were the Bolognians fish?” My daughter was anxious to get some fish in the story. (She might have said, “Baga-bolognians.” Age has diminished my memory of the event.)
“No. They probably invented Pisces, making it one of the most ancient constellations.”
I rummaged through the mess on my desk for a star map. “They pictured Pisces as two fish with ribbons attached to their tails. The ribbons are tied together at a star called Al Rischa, which means ‘The Knot.’”
“Why are they tied together?” She was pushing my knowledge to its limits.
“Nobody knows. The five stars called ‘the Circlet’ represent the right, or western fish.”
“What happened to the other fish?” My observant offspring was referring to the notable lack of anything even vaguely fish-like at the end of the left-hand ribbon.
“Er, maybe it swam away,” I said, hoping this line of investigation would end quickly.
“Where did it swim to?”
“Cleveland. Anyway, Venus was the goddess of love and beauty. Cupid was her son. He’s the one who shoots an arrow in your heart when you fall in love.”
I wasn’t sure whether she was “icking” the arrow or the love, but I pressed on.
“They were by the side of the river. Along came a monster called Typhon. He roared like a lion and hissed like a snake. He had a hundred dragon heads with black tongues flicking out. Flame spat from his 200 eyes and 100 mouths.”
“Did Typhon want to hurt them like Orion did to Two-tail?” (My daughter here referred to the messy death squeeze that my 2-year-old son gave to a dearly departed resident of the fish tank.)
“Uh, yeah, basically. Venus and Cupid couldn’t escape from Typhon, so they changed themselves into fish and swam away. The gods were so pleased by Venus’s escape that they put two fish in the sky to commemorate the event.”
“So what are you going to write about, Daddy?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure before, but I think I know now.”
I dutifully wrote down the conversation above but never used it in a column. At least I don’t think so. After all, our little constellation chat occurred three decades ago.
One of the reasons I didn’t write about Pisces at the time was that nothing in the constellation is particularly interesting to look at with either telescope or binoculars.
Also, most of the stars in Pisces are faint. You’ll need a dark, rural sky to see the full extent of the two fish. The circlet of stars that make up the western fish is quite distinctive, however.
Pisces was of some importance to our ancient forbears, because it is one of the signs of the Zodiac. As the sun appears to circle through the starry background over the course of a year, it visits the constellation for about an astrological month. Thus, all of the other ancient “planets,” including the moon, work their way through Pisces at one time or another.
As astrology slowly became astronomy, Pisces remained important for the same reason. In the modern era, the signs of the Zodiac became the zodiacal constellations.
In the modern era, from March 12 to April 19, the Sun moves within Pisces’ boundaries. As Pisces moves across the sky going north, its path crosses the celestial equator (the projection of Earth’s equator onto the sky) around March 21. As a result, that date marks the vernal equinox, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere.
Besides the moon and planets, telescope owners most love to observe star clusters, young accumulations of stars, and gaseous nebulae, giant clouds of glowing hydrogen gas from which those stars were born. Pisces has not a single noteworthy example of either category of those so-called “deep-sky” objects.
On moonlit nights, amateur telescopists will turn to single stars that, upon inspection, turn into two or more stars. Those multiple star systems feature a star with another star — or even several other stars — slowly orbiting around it.
Most stars appear to be at least double (or, more correctly, “binary”) stars, but Pisces is devoid of star systems within the reach of a small amateur telescope.
There is one ironic exception, the star called Al Rischa, the “Knot” I told my daughter about. Heaven knows it is easy enough to find. Pisces is shaped like a large “V.” Just look for the star at the base of the “V.”
In 1791, the eagle-eyed British astronomer William Herschel discovered that Al Rischa is, in fact, two stars, not one. A faint star orbits the brighter star we see with our unaided eyes. Herschel used a telescope as small or smaller than most amateur telescopists own these days, so the binary nature of the Knot ought to be readily apparent to most amateurs.
However, like most binary stars, the orbit of the fainter star is not a perfect circle. Its elongated elliptical orbit carries it closer and then farther from the main star. By the era of the modern telescope, the two stars were too close together to split with a typical amateur instrument.
Sadly, they are getting closer all the time and won’t reach their maximum closeness until 2060. Then they will slowly separate. With an orbital period of 720 years, hundreds of years will pass before the stars are far enough apart for us to see the fainter star. Old Bill Herschel had all the luck.
If Pisces has any interest at all the average diehard stargazer, it is because of the presence of a very nice galaxy within its confines. But you’ll need fairly large telescope to see it.
Many galaxies are shaped like a child’s pinwheel with long spiral arms extending tightly from a central hub. Our own Milky Way galaxy is a prominent example, but we can’t see the spiral structure because we are in it.
M74 is a “face-on” spiral galaxy located 30 million light-years away. (One light-year is the equivalent of about six trillion miles.).
Our view of M74 is tilted in such a way so that we see it directly from the top. As a result, long-exposure photographs show the spiral structure in all its glory.
Unfortunately, the galaxy is very faint, so the best view that most telescopes will give of it is a faint, round fuzzy patch. I managed to see the spiral structure only once in my life. However, I was using the 32-inch Schottland Telescope at Perkins long before I became director there.
I’m certain that by now the glow of Delaware streetlights has made those beautiful spiral arms invisible. In fact, I doubt you can see the galaxy at all, even in a huge ‘scope.
Time, as they say, marches on. Al Rischa’s companion inches inexorably closer to its parent star. I am now semi-retired from my beloved university. I have gotten a lot better at explaining things to 5-year-olds. My curious young daughter now teaches classics at a university in Chicago. She is old enough to own her own 110-year-old home.
It seems ancient, that old house, but it isn’t really.
In the perhaps 300 years before some future amateur telescopist will be able to see Al Rischa’s companion appear out of the glare of the brighter star, all of our homes and their erstwhile occupants will have returned to the dust of the Earth from whence they came. That, perhaps, is the most sobering lesson that the stars tell us.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.