Learned #7: First Star on the Left...

And Straight On 'Til Morning


Welcome to Learned, a resource for all of us who are trying to learn what to do with space. We’ve got links, we’ve got commentary, we’ve got a couple of pretty pictures. Let’s get to it.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

This week, we're learning about space. Or, rather, we're learning about space by learning about the constellations. After all, as Douglas Adams says:

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

So, there's a lot to learn. A daunting amount. Where to begin?

A couple of years ago, I downloaded an iOS app called StarWalk which promised to use still-nascent AR* technology to help you learn about the stars. It worked beautifully. And then I needed space on my iPad and so the app got deleted and shuffled away into the digital ether that is iCloud.

My daughter, like many young children, likes to go outside at night and look at the moon and stars. Where we live, the Orion constellation is very easy to see. (Or maybe I just think that because Orion is one of three constellations I can identify by sight. The others are the Big and Little Dippers.) I’ve told her what I can remember of the myths and related stars and constellations. Which is not saying a lot.

And then, there have been so many interesting space-related phenomena and events in the past few years - the solar eclipse last year, the lunar eclipse earlier this year - that I have tried to share with her. It has been good for both of us, but I’ve been limited by my own half-remembered knowledge; I want to gain a bit more understanding and a bit more vocabulary.
Screen Capture from StarWalk via iOS

Fortunately, learning the constellations is easy and fun. I dug out the StarWalk app and started digging through it. (It turns out that, in the intervening years, the one app has spawned a sequel and several spin-offs. While they look interesting, I’m sticking to just the one app for now.)

The key features of this app are that it uses your location, the time, and your device's camera to give you a map of the sky as it is right then and there.* Which means, if I stand on my balcony at night and hold the iPad over my head with the camera turned on, the app will show me the names of all the stars over me, both visible and non.

I chose to set my iPad to display the constellations as lines connecting the stars with artistic renderings of the image the constellation represents superimposed on it. This is really cool. This is what I wanted the app for, originally.

Unfortunately, I’ve plunged into this topic at exactly the wrong time, as Spring’s arrival has meant more rainy and cloudy nights than it has clear ones. So, I’m giving myself some time over the spring and summer to get a little bit of this stuff into my head and to get familiar with it again. My hope is that, come fall, Naomi and I will be able to stand out on our balcony and see Perseus chase Medusa, the rise and set of the Three Sisters, and all the myriad other stories being told in the clear night skies.

*AR means Augmented Reality and is the current catch-all term for any app, toy, or connected device that lays an information layer over a live picture from your device’s camera. Remember Pokemon Go? AR. The tech can be really cool and there are some very innovative projects, like StarWalk, being developed that will help educators explain any number of things.

Astronomy & Science AR Apps

What We’re Reading:

D'Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

These days, a lot of my younger students are getting their first exposure to Greek (and Norse and Egyptian) mythology through Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels, which is really cool. But my first exposure was Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Beautifully illustrated, simply told, this book has all the classic stories.

And, man, did I love this book as a kid. It was, hands down, one of my top three favorite non-fiction books. I went through two different paperback copies, each one disintegrated from being read too often.

This book was the first time I learned of Hercules’ labors and Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. I learned of Medusa and of Persephone and I learned that a lot of the Greek gods were not real nice people.

It was not until many, many years later that I learned how watered-down these versions are. In fact, learning how different the “grown-up” versions of many of the myths were from the versions presented here sent me on a years-long tear through the Brothers Grimm, the Arabian Nights, and the Bible. Eye-opening for sure.

The d’Aulaires’ book is still a fantastic entry point for young people, whether they’re familiar with one form of the stories or another. And, once you’ve gotten them hooked on mythology and storytelling, you can hand them d’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and let them get to the really good stuff!


I'm Joel.  I've got a website.  Another website.  And a twitter.  And an instagram, too.  Sometimes, even a byline.

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Photo by Joel Neff on Unsplash (Hey! That’s me!)

It’s been a wet and rainy start to spring over here in my neck of the woods, which has been great for getting out and taking pictures, but not so great for finding rabbits of any kind.

Speaking of rabbits, it turns out the d’Aulaires were a married couple who illustrated dozens of books over the course of 40-some years, many of which are still in print and being celebrated.

ManyBooks and Project Gutenberg have thousands of out-of-print and nearly forgotten books available for free. Just not any recent ones thanks to U.S. copyright extension laws. Fortunately, that’s about to change. Here’s why.

For more information about copyright, why it’s not working as it should, and other free speech issues, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit org fighting the good fight.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy, learn something.