Springfield astronomer shares secrets of the stars

He is tall, friendly and ever-helpful.

That may be why I think of Dan Fleisch as the person who is to my understanding of the universe what the Man in the Yellow Hat is to Curious George’s understanding of life.

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When I ask him a question, he considers my monkey curiosity and level of understanding, then enthusiastically tries to point me in the right direction, knowing full well that, at any moment, an odd little monkey with a confused look on his face may burst out of my chest like the creatures in “Aliens.”

After a long career at Wittenberg University, the now occasional professor of physics there can be spotted walking on the city’s north side, the method he’s used in the past few years to adjust his relationship with gravity by losing 90 pounds.

During that time, he’s also become the author of a series of student guides to physics published by Cambridge University Press in England, many of those books dealing with the language of science and math.

That makes him a world-class Man in the Yellow Hat.

Wisely it wasn’t one of those Cambridge books he brought along after I called and asked him to teach me something about constellations.

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He instead brought along a book by H.A. Rey, the writer, illustrator and creator of, that’s right, Curious George.

Rey wrote the book decades ago to create simplified stick figures of the constellations so children and recovering political science majors like me might more easily see them in the sky.

To make me feel better about all this, my Man in the Yellow Hat pointed to the back of a copy of the Rey book that included an endorsement by Albert Einstein.

In “Once Upon a Time” fashion, Fleisch also told me that the study of the night sky, and hence, constellations, goes back to where “everything does,” ancient Sumeria and Babylonia.

“For thousands of years,” he said, “people were making crude maps of the stars for navigation.”

They were, in essence, taking measure of the sky to help them get around on earth, back at the time when people were navigating rather than dancing with the stars.

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In their map-making, our forebears looked to the skies and saw different things in the patterns in the stars. Connecting the brightest ones, “they just plastered a drawing on top of them” to group them together, Fleisch said.

Just as the word con-struction means to bring a structure together, con-stellation means to bring stars together, and each culture did so, most often using important stories.

In the way that yogurt named for that country is now special, the stories the Greeks plastered (or frescoed) across the sky are most familiar to us.

But where the Greeks saw in the constellation Cassiopeia the image of a vain mythological queen, researchers have found that Arabic sky watchers saw in the same constellation the shape of a hand, while Middle Easterners imagined the hump (but not two) of a camel, Laplanders the antlers of a moose and Native Americans a herd of different sorts of animals. All then spun stories that further stitched the constellations together like yarn art.

For centuries, science, religion and myth coexisted together in the night sky as though they’d read the modern bumper sticker urging us to do the same.

People all over earth, aware their fates weren’t always in their own hands, looked to the astronomer and astrologer for hints of the future like futures traders on a stock exchange. Some of the stories long ago projected into the heavens, Fleisch said, have survived them.

The later death scenes in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, are foreshadowed by the story of Thisbe and Pyramus, from a far earlier generation of star-crossed lovers. Shakespeare got the last word in on the tale not because of original plotting but because of his stellar writing.

My Man in the Yellow Hat told me modern constellations date to about 158 C.E. or A.D., depending on the time of one’s point of reference, and are associated with the astronomer Ptolemy. (The “P” is silent: insert your own joke here).

“By then,” he said, “there was a lot less astrology and a lot more of the mathematics,” of the sort used in astronomy. Having already gone forth and multiplied, people were moving on to geometry.

They were using it well enough to determine that the earth’s axis has a very slight wobble to it as we spin through space, and that it makes one trip around that wobble cycle every 26,000 years.

“They knew about this in the time of Ptolemy,” Fleisch said, as Curious George nodded.

Of the 88 official constellations established by the International Astronomical Union in 1932, Ptolemy created 48, the amount limited by the amount of sky he was able to see.

After Ptolemy, the next big name in astronomy was 16th Century Danish scientist Tycho Brahe, who built an observatory not using the telescope, yet to be developed, but large sextants of the sort navigators then used at sea. As scientists from a new part of the globe accumulated knowledge, what had started as a crude map of the skies became increasingly sophisticated.

By the time all of this was formalized, the constellations weren’t just collections of stars but began to constitute what essentially is a Congressional districting map all over the sky — districts into which new stars or objects would be mapped as they were identified.

That brings us to one of the modern wonders of the sky and what I consider to be a potentially astronomical expansion of constellations.

Just as the earliest constellations were shaped by what could be seen from Earth by the naked eye, and larger sextants brought greater accuracy in mapping the sky, the telescope (tele for “long” or “far” and scope for “see”) extended our vision into space.

Then came the Hubble Telescope that was sent into space and, from there, was assigned to peer into the Hubble Dark Field, named for what appeared to be a nearly dark spot in the Big Dipper.

Because there seemed to be nothing there, the spirit of Curious George began to grow in the minds of scientists like an unreachable itch in the middle of the back. And so, out of the telescope’s busy schedule, they managed to carve out about a huge 10-day period, and for 150 orbits, to scratch it.

In that “dark” field — about the size of a grain of sand to Curious Georges and Georgettes standing on Earth — the telescope found not 1,600 planets or 1,600 stars, but 1,600 galaxies.

All of those, we can assume, might have their own constellations that could be seen from various planets out there somewhere. More than that, the light from some of those stars is believed to have started its trip our way 11 million years ago, in a time before our sun was born, maybe after downing an early morning coffee.

I say that because regardless I’ve concluded I can only aspire to a stick figure understanding of the universe as we understand it.

Trying to imagine 11 million years of time and the amount of space light could travel through at roughly 186,000 miles a second for that period leaves me feeling like Curious George, scratching his head as he looks up into the sky while standing next to the Man in the Yellow Hat.

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