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I took an astronomy class in college that was taught by a master storyteller. It ignited in me a lifelong passion for the roles the stars have played in navigation and the myths that surround the constellations. For years I subscribed to Astronomy Magazine. I shared my passion with my sons. We’d lay out on the dock and I’d tell them how to find their way around the sky. The Arabians Knights supposedly had to see the correct number of stars in Orion’s belt to be admitted to the inner circle. Think of it as one of the earliest visual acuity tests. Or imagine finding your way on the Underground Railroad using the big dipper to point you to the North Star. For more on Polaris read this. Imagine that in 10,000 years, Vega will be the new Pole Star. That is change on a cosmic scale. That is change that will happen without us doing anything.

The thing about learning astronomy through looking at the sky and hearing stories is that one gets a sense of context and history. We learn to find minor constellations by following imaginary lines from the more easily identifiable ones. We learn pattern perception. We learn that the sky changes slowly throughout the seasons. We learn that various cultures from the Greeks to the Native Americans all had stories to tell about the sky. We can make up our own stories. Of course this was in the days before the distractions of television and light pollution.

Today there is an “app” called google sky.

Figure out what you’re looking at. Point your phone at the sky, and Google Sky Map will show the stars, planets, constellations, and more to help you identify the celestial objects in view. You can also browse the skies in manual mode.

I admit to being really jazzed when my sister first pointed her phone at the sky and things came up properly named. Wow, I thought. No more caring around the little plastic star finder wheels and trying to recover from the night blindness of a flashlight. I was thinking that technology was way cool. Then I wondered how people would learn the stories and learn to “see” their way around the sky. If three or four people are laying together pointing up at the sky and telling stories about what they see there is a shared experience and a conversation. If those same people are each pointing their ‘smart phones’ at the sky and going, “Oh, Polaris” where’s the magic of the night sky?

I am torn about whether this new app is a convenience or a destroyer of the magic and mystery of the sky on a clear night. Even if the smart phone told a short story, I just don’t think it would be the same.

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