Image of night sky and trees

Lessons in the stars: Astronomers bring the cosmos into your home

Patricia Lonergan

If you are searching for homeschooling activities or looking to try a new hobby during the pandemic, now might be the perfect time to turn your gaze toward the heavens as the weather gets warmer. From planets and stars to galaxies and the cultural importance of the night sky, there’s a fascinating universe waiting to be explored.

U of T astronomy Professor Emeritus John Percy suggests that anyone interested in the cosmos start by building a basic understanding of the night sky. That doesn’t mean running out and buying a telescope – in fact, he recommends against that. There’s a lot to see and learn with just the naked eye or binoculars.

The moon, for example, is obviously easy to spot and can be followed through its phases. Percy, who helped develop the curriculum for elementary and high school students, suggests budding astronomers keep a moon diary, noting their observations – are there lighter and darker regions visible or are they able to glimpse a face on the surface of the moon? It’s good practice, he adds, because science is based on recording observations.

Those searching out planets will find Venus shining brightly throughout May, very low in the west after sunset. Mercury, which is usually too close to the sun to be seen, will appear close to Venus on May 21, Percy says. To know what to look for when and where, it’s best to use a star chart. Percy recommends Skymaps or an interactive star chart from Sky and Telescope.

For those who can’t get out to view the night sky or who simply want to learn more, the university’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics is a co-sponsor of Discover the Universe, a program that offers daily astronomy-at-home talks at 2 p.m. for young people. The university’s partner, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), offers regular presentations, with an education section that contains activities and links that are especially useful for children learning online. U of T astronomers, meanwhile, have created Cosmos on Your Couch, a series of weekly talks on Youtube.

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Professor Emeritus John Percy.

On Tuesday, May 5 at 7 p.m. Percy will be talking about archeoastronomy during a livestream. He explains he will be exploring astronomy of pre-technology civilizations, which used the daytime and nighttime sky as a calendar and compass.

“It was high tech for them,” he says, noting these earlier civilizations found direction, time and time of year by looking at the sky. Clocks would be set based on the position of the sun and sea captains had to learn basic astronomy because they navigated by the stars, Percy says.

People looked to the heavens for both practical and religious reasons. Indeed, even the name heaven and heavens have religious and astronomical meanings.

“It is preserved today in the names of the planets because they were assumed to have a connection with the gods” Percy says. Mars is the god of war, Venus the goddess of beauty, and so on.

Much of what can be seen in the sky is imbued with cultural meaning. “Different cultures see different things,” Percy says, noting the constellations are not scientific patterns but are instead culturally determined.

Many probably know the constellations based on Greek and Roman mythology, which goes back 2,000 years, he explains, yet those same patterns mean something different in Indigenous and Chinese culture. People looked up and recognized stories written in the sky, and those stories of gods or animals that were important in life were kept alive.

Perhaps the most well-known constellation in the night sky is the Big Dipper. Percy notes it is actually part of Ursa Major. Meanwhile, the pole star, used in navigation, is part of Ursa Minor. Thousands of years ago people saw a big bear and little bear in the stars.

When physical distancing measures are lifted, Percy suggests attending one of RASC’s star parties at The Riverwood Conservancy. It offers a great opportunity for those who have become familiar with the sky to see different telescopes in action and talk to fellow stargazers.

The cosmos offers many lessons and wonders for the inquisitive. Whether observed from a balcony, backyard, park (when permitted), or from the couch, the universe provides a fascinating expanse to explore.

“Be curious,” Percy says. “There’s a whole universe up there.”