Stargazers | A canvas to enjoy: Finding Leo, the celestial lion

I've spent more than three fun decades working in some of the great planetariums of our nation, and as springtime approaches each year, I always think back to those great school field trips to Philadelphia's Fels Planetarium.

These exposed me to a universe I never would have experienced from behind those rickety old wooden desks at Centennial Elementary School in Easton, Penn.

I remember one program in which I learned to find my way around the heavens using only the Big Dipper.

You might recall from last week's article that the Big Dipper, one of the most easily recognized star groupings in the sky of the Northern Hemisphere, now appears to be balancing on its handle in the northeastern sky after dark.

"Simply connect its seven stars with imaginary lines," the planetarium lecturer explained, "and you'll see a bowl and a long bent handle." This was especially fun for me, since my favorite game at the time was Connect the Dots.

I couldn't wait for darkness to fall so I could check it out myself. I remember racing outdoors after dinner that night to connect the Dipper's dots. And sure enough, there was the shape of a bowl and a bent handle, just like the astronomer had said!

I also recall him explaining that if we could fill the Dipper's bowl with water and poke a hole in its base, the water would drip onto the back of Leo, the lion. But how would I know Leo when I found it? By the backward question mark that forms the lion's head, with the bright star Regulus at its base.

He even connected those dots to show how — with a lot of imagination — one might trace a rough outline of a lion. The backward question mark formed its head, and the triangle of stars on the other end formed its, well, other end.

"This is too cool!" I thought. But wait a minute. It seemed to me that if I turned the image around, it was actually easier to see a mouse. That backward question mark now traced the mouse's long curving tail, and the triangle formed its head and pointy nose.

Of course, there is no actual place called "Leo" or "The Big Dipper," just a random sprinkling of stars in our sky that we humans like to trace into celestial pictures. It doesn't even matter what pictures we imagine there, as long as we get out and give it a shot.

The point is that the sky is a marvelous canvas for us to enjoy. It's remarkable how seemingly unimportant events can ignite a child's imagination and sometimes even lead to a lifetime passion. In fact, much of what I discovered under that magical planetarium dome some 50-plus years ago I continue to pass on to others who gaze skyward, both in this column and under the starry night sky.

So if you've got children around, be sure to introduce them to the stars. Whether or not they seem interested, you'll be exposing them to one of nature's great experiences.

And you just never know what lifelong passions you might ignite!

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