Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock

How To Begin Star Study

The Pole-Star and the Dippers

Teacher's Story

The way to begin star study is to learn to know the Big Dipper, and through its pointers to distinguish the Pole-star; for whenever we try to find any star we have to find the Big Dipper and Pole-star first so as to have some fixed point to start from. There are four stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper and three in the curved handle. A line drawn through the outer two stars of the bowl, if extended, will touch the North Star, or Pole-star. It is very important for us to know the Pole-star, because the northern end of the earth's axis is directed toward it, and it is therefore situated in the heavens almost directly above our North Pole. For those of us who live in the northern Hemisphere, the North Star never sets, but is always in our sky. Of course, the North Star has nothing to do with the axis of our earth any more than the figure on the blackboard has to do with the pointer; it simply happens to lie in the direction toward which the northern end of the earth's axis points. In the southern skies, there is no convenient star which lies directly above the South Pole, so there is no South Pole-star. It is also a coincidence that the needle of the mariner's compass points toward the North Star; the earth being a large magnet exercises its influence on all substances which can be magnetized, and since the poles of our great earth-magnet are nearly in line with the poles of the earth's axis, the magnetic needle naturally points north and south, and the North Star chances to be nearly in the direction toward which the northern end of the compass needle points.

The Pole-star cannot be seen from the southern hemisphere; but if we should start from Florida, on a journey toward Baffin's Bay, we should discover that each night this star would seem higher in the sky. And if we should succeed in reaching the North Pole, we would find the Pole-star directly over our heads, and what a wonderful sight the stars would be from this point! For none of the stars which we could see would rise or set, but would move around us in circles parallel to the horizon.

The Big Dipper points towards the Pole-star, and to us seems to revolve around it every twenty-four hours but, of course, this appearance is caused by the fact that we ourselves are revolving from west to east. Therefore, the stars seem to revolve from west to east under the Pole-star and from east to west above it, or in exactly the opposite direction in which the hands of a clock turn. Owing to the movement of the earth in its orbit, the Big Dipper and all the other stars arrive at a certain point in our sky four minutes earlier each day or about two hours earlier each month; thus, the Big Dipper is east of the Pole-star with handle down in the evenings of January, while at the same time of night in July, it is west of the Pole-star with the handle up. But the time of year that a certain star reaches a certain point is so invariable, that if we know star time, or sidereal time as it is called, we can tell just what hour of the night it is when a star passes this point. Thus, the Big Dipper and the other polar constellations are the night clock of the sailors of the northern hemisphere; for though this great polar clock has its hands moving around the wrong way, it gains time with such regularity that anyone who understands is able to compute exact time by it.


The Pole-star and the Big and Little Dippers.

The Little Dipper lies much nearer the Pole-star than does the Big Dipper; in fact, the Pole-star itself is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. Besides the Pole-star, there are two more stars in the handle of the Little Dipper, and of the four stars which make the bowl, the two that form the outer edge are much the brighter. The bowl of the Little Dipper is above or below the Pole-star according to the hour of the evening, or the night of the year, for it apparently revolves about the Pole-star as does the Big Dipper. The two Dippers open toward each other, and some one said "they pour into each other."

The Big Dipper is a part of a constellation called Ursa Major,  the Great Bear; and the Little Dipper is the Little Bear, the handle of the dipper being the bear's tail.

There is an ancient myth telling the story of the Big and Little Bears: A beautiful mother called Callisto had a little son whom she named Arcas. Callisto was so beautiful that she awakened the anger of Juno, who changed her to a bear; and when her son grew up he became a hunter, and one day would have killed his transformed mother; but Jupiter seeing the danger of this crime caught the two up into the heavens, and set them there as shining stars. But Juno was still vindictive, so she wrought a spell which never allowed these stars to rise and set like other stars, but kept them always moving around and around.

References—The Friendly Stars by Martin is a most delightful book and at the same time gives explicit directions for finding the stars and much interesting information concerning them. The planisphere is a little chart with a mechanical device which enables us to find what stars are in sight every night of the year, or at any time of night. It is published by Thos. Whittaker, Bible House, New York, and costs seventy-five cents.

Lesson CCXXV

The Two Dippers

Leading thought—The North Star or Pole-star may always be found by the stars known as the pointers in the Big Dipper; the stars of the Big Dipper seem to revolve around the Pole-star once in twenty-four hours.

Method—The time to begin these observations is when the moon is in its last quarter, so that the moonlight will not make pale the stars in early evening. Draw upon the blackboard, from the chart shown on page 890, the Big Dipper and the Pole-star, with a line extending through the pointers. Say to the pupils that this Big Dipper is above or below or at one side of the Pole-star, and that you wish them to observe for themselves where it is and tell you about it the next day. After they surely know the Big Dipper, ask the following questions:


1. Can you find the Big Dipper among the stars?

2. Is it in the north, south, east or west?

3. Which stars are the "pointers" in the Dipper, and why are they called so?

4. Make a drawing showing how you can always find the Pole-star, if you can see the Big Dipper.

5. How many stars make the bowl of the Dipper?

6. How many stars in the handle?

7. Is the handle straight or is it curved?

8. Does the Big Dipper open toward the Pole-star, or away from it?

9. Is it above or below the Pole-star at eight o'clock in the evening, or at the right or the left of it?

10. Does the Big Dipper remain in the same direction from the Pole-star all night? Look at it at seven o'clock and again at nine o'clock and see if it has changed position.

11. Do you think it moves around the Pole-star once every twenty-four hours? In which direction? How could you tell the time of night by the Big Dipper and the Pole-star?

12. Does the Big Dipper ever rise and set?

13. The Big Dipper is also called the Great Bear. Can you find the stars which make the bear's head and front legs?

After the pupils surely know the Big Dipper and Pole-star draw the complete diagram upon the board to show the Little Dipper and where it may be found, and call attention to the fact that the end of the Little Dipper's handle is the Pole-star itself and that its bowl is not flaring, like that of the Big Dipper and that the two pour into each other. Let the pupils find the Little Dipper in the sky for themselves and ask the following questions:


14. Is the Little Dipper nearer or farther from the Pole-star than the Big Dipper?

15. How many stars in the handle of the Little Dipper?

16. How many stars make the bowl of the Little Dipper? Which of these stars are the brightest? Is the bowl of the Little Dipper above or below the Pole-star?

17. Does the Little Dipper extend in the same direction in relation to the Pole-star all night?

18. Make observations on the relation to each other of the two Dippers at eight o'clock in the evening of January, February, March and April.

After the above lessons are well learned, give the following questions, and try to have the pupils answer by thinking:

Questions about Polaris (the North Star) for the pupils to think about and answer:

19. How many names has the Pole-star? Can the Pole-star be seen from the southern hemisphere? If not, why not?

20. If you should start from southern Florida and travel straight north, how would the Pole-star seem to change position each succeeding night?

21. If you could stand at the North Pole, where would the Pole-star seem to be?

22. If you were at the North Pole, would any of the stars rise and set? In what direction would the stars seem to move and why?

23. How does the North Star help the sailors to navigate the seas and why?

24. How do astronomers reckon distances between us and the stars? What is a light-year?

Topics for English lesson—(a) What a star is. (b) What a constellation is. (c) How the stars and constellations received their names in ancient times. In ancient times the Big and Little Dippers were named the Big and Little Bears, and that is their Latin name to this day. Write a story about what the ancient Greeks told about these Bears and how they came to be in the sky.

Supplementary reading—Stories of Starland, Proctor, pp. 117-121; Storyland of the Stars, Pratt, p. 75; Child's Study of the Classics, p. 33.

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