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A Dark Source for our Familiar Myths

November 23, 2009

Just a quick comment on this fascinating story up at the newscientist about the  possible dark matter original of our familar bright constellation stars. I’m quite interested in astronomy and I didn’t know that most of the bright stars that make up the most familiar constellations in our skies (Orion, canis major, the souther cross, perseus, scorpius etc) are part of an identifiable belt of large, young, hot stars (this is astronomy people not hollywood, calm down!) that are not part of the normal spiral structure of our galaxy.  They can be identified as a seperate line of stars formed at an odd angle to the plane of the galaxy, its called Gould’s belt, and astronomers are still not sure why its there.

So, that’s the first interesting thing.  The second thing is that there is a theory gaining more and more credibility that Gould’s belt was formed by a cloud of dark matter passing through our galaxy, get this, around 30 million years ago.  If that doesn’t blow you mind you need to go refresh you memory about the ages of planets, stars, galaxies etc.  Thirty million years is literally nothing in astronomical terms.  The dinosaurs died out twice as long ago as this.  Which means the dinosaurs wouldn’t have seen Orion in the sky.  (Of course, the stars also move, so the constellations would have been very different millions of years ago, but these bright stars weren’t even born at that time).  The thing that seems fascinating about it is the possibility that all of these stars were created at once due to the impact of a passing cloud of dark matter.

This is important culturally and scientifically.  Culturally, these bright stars form the backbone of the constellations that were incredibly influential in the formation of human culture.  The Egyptians and the Greeks (for example) would surely have found other things to look at if they were not there, but the sky would have been significantly less interesting without the stars of Gould’s belt.

Scientifically, it turn out that these bright stars may help us locate a nearby cloud of passing dark matter that can be studied because, oh yeah, we have absolutely no idea what dark matter actually is.

Anyways, I just thought it makes a good story, it ties together our modern attempts to understand the makeup of the universe with our ancient attempts to understand the makeup of the universe.  The great Orion  and Perseus may yet lead us to the ultimate Truths.

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