Astronomy rarely imposes its political beliefs on the stars. Most stars have alphanumerical or designations, not names. The goal is to be objective. The universe is mute 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 an important emotional effect on the way 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 10 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 star is about 120 light years distant (about 720 trillion miles), which puts it in our galactic neighborhood. The surprise comes when it is viewed in 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 be caught in a slow cosmic dance. They orbit one another every 10,000 years.
The main star shines 50 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 twice the mass of the sun.
The Charles in question 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 deeply grounded in 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 strict, 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, the 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 to look up as the stars shone beautifully under velvet-black skies.
It hard to say what drew Scarborough’s eye to a not particularly bright star in an obscure constellation named after hunting dogs. Perhaps it was his dead monarch’s love of the hunt, or perhaps he was simply looking for a star that 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.
By 1673, that connection was so commonly accepted that English stellar cartographer Francis Lamb designated the star Cor Caroli Regis Martyris, the Heart of Charles, the Martyred King.
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 symbol than reality. And yet the Heart of Charles still swells brightly against the velvet blackness of the night.
Mars and Venus have disappeared from our evening sky, but take heart, fellow and sister stargazers. By midnight, bright Jupiter is high in the southeast. Use binoculars to spot some of its four brightest moons huddled closely around the planet.
As morning twilight begins at about 4:30 a.m., see if you can spot Saturn rising in the east. By summer, the ringed planet will be high in the south in the early evening, and we’ll get some pretty spectacular views of it at our Friday-night public programs at Perkins Observatory.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.