“Just So Science” – The Stellar Sisters

By Elf Eldridge 06/06/2011

Happy Matariki everyone! It’s that time of the year when we approach the shortest day and Matariki appears low in the East in our morning sky just before the sunrise. To find it follow the line of the stars from Orion’s belt (Tautoru in Maori) towards the North – past a red star (Aldebaran) and to a small clump of stars; the “Eyes of God” or Matariki.

Matariki as seen by Spitzer Space Telescope
Matariki as seen by Spitzer Space Telescope

Depending on eyesight and viewing conditions people are usually able to make out between 7 and 14 stars within this cluster with the naked eye, although in reality there are over 1000 members. Known as the Pleiades, the daughters of the titan Atlas in Greek folklore and as Subaru in Japan, this cluster is almost always associated with celebrations of rebirth and regeneration, most likely due to its appearance’s proximity to the Northern solstice (shortest day), when the tide of Winter turns and we begin to move towards warmer months once again.

But enough about the stuff that was printed in papers nationwide this week – I thought I might delve into some explanations of the stars themselves. First they’re young – particularly so for stars, with an estimated age of 100 million years. To put that in context, most dinosaur fossils we have discovered are dated between 90 and 250 million years old. So these gorgeous, blue-hot balls of gas really are just toddlers in the grand scheme of things! Their incredible blue hue come from their temperature, roughly twice that of the sun due to their size causing them to burn through their fuel at a phenomenal rate, but the ‘haze’ seen around them in many  pictures is an immense ice cloud that has crossed paths with them, reflecting their starlight back to our earth-bound eyes.

Main Matariki stars
Main Matariki stars

I’ve had some ‘interesting’ discussions with scientists over the last few days, several of who bemoan the mixing of Matariki celebrations with the retelling of ‘myths’ about the stars and see it as a loss for science, as the stories of the stars are focussed on rather than the facts. However, within many of these stories are important points, the story simply facilitates passing these points onto other generations – so i’ll include one of the more famous ones here and risk the wrath of science 🙂

From the endless potential of Te Kore, the universe came into being; eventually splitting into Rangi-nui (Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (Earth Mother). These lovers were locked in a tight embrace and their children were trapped in the darkness between them, until one day Tane Mahuta caught a glimpse of light from the outside world. He convinced his brothers to push and separate his parents, ripping ther sky from the earth and creating the world we live in. He then placed four ‘Pillars of Light’ or Pou to keep them separate for all eternity and these can be seen in the dawn sky at the rising of Matariki. The Pou are marked by: Marariki, Rehua (Antares in Scorpius), Tautoru (Orion’s Belt) and Takurua (Sirius)”

So why do I include this? Well, the four Pou mentioned above are the basis for a huge range of traditional navigational techniques, especially when coupled with finding South using the Southern Cross. When they lie across the sky as told in the story, travelers could estimate both the time of year as well as their position just from looking at these stars – and all this without knowing a scrap about what the stars actually are. It makes you appreciate the ingenuity of the human mind!

Happy Matariki again everyone – don’t forget to celebrate the time for new beginnings – I’ll be celebrating by introducing a ‘Saturday Nanotech’ blog post where I briefly explain my favourite new Nanotech paper.

0 Responses to ““Just So Science” – The Stellar Sisters”

  • So a Maori creation story is fine on Sciblogs but a Christian one is not?

    Both are myths, and have no basis in science.

  • @ Mike Johnson

    Christianity doesn’t even come in to it. This is a blog about the Plieades / Matakiri / Subaru / whatever you want to call it constellation. Last I checked (1 mins ago) there is no Judeo-Christian creation myth specific to this constellation.
    Unless I missed that part in Genesis where it explictly states “and then God created the Plieades / Matariki / what ever you want to call it ” .

    And Mike, it’s one paragraph relating the story, chill out.

  • @Brent – deepest apologies! I did indeed, i shall have to stop blogging at 2am. I have since corrected them and thanks for bringing them to my attention!