Astronomy rarely imposes its political beliefs on the stars. Most of them have alphanumerical or designations, not names.
The goal is to be objective. The universe is deaf to human social problems and history. Science attempts to understand the universe, not to impose our human foibles upon it.
There are, of course, notable exceptions. Humans love to name things, and the star “Alpha” in the constellation Canes Venatici proves that names have a significant emotional effect on how we see our universe.
Alpha has a more popular name — Cor Caroli, the Heart of Charles. It shines brightly near the Big Dipper in one of the sky’s more obscure constellations, Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs.
Around 9 p.m., look for the Dipper high in the northeastern sky. To the right of the Dipper’s handle, find a flat triangle of stars. The middle (and brightest) star of the triangle is Cor Caroli.
The constellation is nestled in the star-sparse area surrounded by Coma Berenices to the south, Ursa Major to the northwest, and Boötes to the east.
Only one other star, designated “Beta,” is easily visible from a suburban location. Alpha and Beta figure significantly in the constellation’s checkered history.
Traditionally, Canes Venatici wasn’t even a constellation. Ancient people identified it as the club or staff of the constellation Boötes, the Herdsman, if they identified it as anything at all.
The Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy was in the latter camp. Around 150 CE, he published the Almagest, a seminal astronomical work. He dutifully cataloged Alpha and Beta, but he didn’t include them in a constellation.
As western astronomy faltered during the medieval period, Arabic astronomers took up the job. One important task was translating the Almagest, initially written in Greek, into Arabic.
The translator didn’t know the Greek word “kollorobos” (club). Instead, he translated it as the Arabic equivalent of “a spear with a hook on its end.”
When the Arabs subsequently translated the text into Latin, “kullāb,” the word for hook, inadvertently became “kilāb,” the term for dogs.
And thus was born the constellation Hastile Habens Canes, Dogs with Spears or, if you wish, Spears with Dogs on their End.
Whatever the meaning, the stars were still associated with Boötes.
The constellation began to take its current form in 1550 when star-mapper Peter Apian depicted the stars as two dogs held by the constellation Boötes.
There matters remained until 1687 when Johannes Hevelius broke the two stars off as a separate constellation. In the process, he named the Alpha dog Chara, which means “joy” in Latin. The dimmer Beta he called Asteron, “Little Star.”
Asteron has kept its name. Chara became the star Cor Caroli, the Heart of Charles, for reasons we will discuss presently. But first, a word about Cor Caroli.
The star is about 100 light-years distant (600 trillion miles or so), putting it in our galactic neighborhood. The surprise comes when we view it through a small telescope. Cor Caroli is not one star but two. Near the bright star you see is a much dimmer companion, making Cor Caroli a double, or binary, star.
The stars are separated from one another by about 75 billion miles. Even at that distance, their gravitational attraction to each other causes them to dance their slow cosmic waltz. They orbit one another every 10,000 years.
The main star shines 100 times more brightly than our sun and has about three times more stellar material. Even the dim companion has six times the brightness and nearly 1.5 times the sun’s mass.
The “Charles” in the Heart of Charles is Charles I of England, one of that nation’s most vilified and praised monarchs. He was thrown from power in 1647 after a long civil war between the Royalists, who supported him, and the Parliamentarians, led by a staunchly fundamentalist religious sect called the Puritans.
The Parliamentarians declared a “republican” form of government they called the Commonwealth. It was deeply grounded in strict Puritan morality.
On Jan. 30, 1649, having blamed the former king for all the death and destruction of the war, the Commonwealth lopped off the head of the unfortunate monarch.
The Commonwealth lasted only 11 years. Political instability, repressive religious intolerance, and harsh, puritanical laws governing human behavior characterized its rule. You will, perhaps, note the similarity with certain religiously-based governmental systems of today, dear readers.
In those days, people were less tolerant of intolerance. In 1660, Charles II, son of the martyred king, returned from exile to England, and the monarchy was restored.
And so it was that on May 29 of that year, Charles II returned to London in triumph. That night, Sir Charles Scarborough, personal physician to Charles II, went outside and looked up. The stars shone beautifully under velvet-black skies.
What drew Scarborough’s eye to a not particularly bright star in an obscure constellation named after hunting dogs is hard to say. Perhaps it was his dead monarch’s love of the hunt, or he was simply looking for a star he thought had no name.
In any case, the star designated “Alpha” in Canes Venatici seemed to shine more brilliantly than he had ever seen, as if it were the heart of the dead king swelling with pride at his son’s restoration to the throne.
It’s a great story, but it probably never happened.
The exact name, “Cor Caroli,” didn’t appear until 1801, when Johann Bode used it on his beautifully engraved star map. It is unclear which Charles he is referring to.
In 1844, English astronomer William Henry Smyth told the story, somewhat derisively, for the first time in print in his Bedford Catalogue of stars. Smyth attributes the name to Edmond Haley, who supposedly named it at the suggestion of Sir Charles Scarborough himself.
Smyth seems skeptical that the story ever happened. He calls the tale “vulgar,” by which he means popular among the non-aristocratic classes, i.e., ordinary folks.
Smyth is pretty obviously not a fan of Charles I. He refers to the star as “a worthless man’s heart.”
The central point of the story — that the star appeared to brighten dramatically that evening in 1660 — is improbable, astronomically speaking. To my knowledge, no other reference to such a brightening appears in the astronomical record.
As constellational scholar Ian Ridpath puts it, “In reality such a brightening would be extremely unlikely, so the story can only be apocryphal.”
In 1899 R. H. Allen published the influential book Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, in which he repeats the story without mentioning its dubious origins. It has been told and retold based on Allen’s version ever since. (I must confess that I’ve recounted it more than a few times myself.)
No matter. Humans love a “true” story, even if it isn’t true. As the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” so famously suggests, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
True or not, Scarborough’s story was in wide circulation by 1673. The Brits so commonly accepted the connection between the star and the name that English stellar cartographer Francis Lamb designated the star Cor Caroli Regis Martyris, the Heart of Charles, the Martyred King.
Johann Bode shortened it to Cor Caroli in 1801. And the rest is beloved historical fiction.
Much has changed since those days. In places like England, the people — and not political or religious tyrants — rule. Against the flow of history, the monarchy in England still survives, more as a symbol than a reflection of political reality. And yet the Heart of Charles still swells brightly against the velvet blackness of the night.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.