From the March 2016 issue

Listen to the stars

The cosmic voice may be louder than you think.
By | Published: March 28, 2016 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Astronomy is a visual experience, largely devoid of sound. Aside from the rare boom of a bolide, the controversial crackling of an aurora, or the whistling of meteors on a radio, we do not hear the heavens. But you can break this non-sound barrier this month if you open not only your eyes, but also your imagination.

Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow, one of my favorite poets, inspired me to hear the “voice” of the night. For instance, in his 1839 poem “Hymn to the Night,” he writes: “I heard the trailing garments of the Night / Sweep through her marble halls!” With these words, Longfellow transforms a mute vision into a sweeping gesture of elegant sound.

But did you know that early stargazers once imagined some stars to be vociferous?

A radiant voice
If you look east around 9 p.m. this month, you’ll see golden Arcturus (Alpha [α] Boötis) shining midway up the eastern sky in the constellation of the Herdsman, which people also have imagined as a ploughman, an ox driver, a shepherd, and more. For instance, an early Arab translation of Ptolemy’s Boötes defines it as Auwd, meaning the “vociferator.”

Comet Catalina passed by golden Arcturus in January.
Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) passed by golden Arcturus in January. If you listen as well as look, can you hear the stars whispering with an ancient voice?
Chris Levitan
In his spectacular 1899 work, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard Hinckley Allen tells us that Boötes may also come from the Greek word Boetes, which means “clamorous,” and describes the shouts made by the celestial Herdsman. Armed with this knowledge, see if you can look up this constellation and hear the Herdsman as he calls out to his two hounds (Canes Venatici) as they drive the bears (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) around the North Celestial Pole.

A visual cue
If you have trouble hearing the shouts, just turn your attention to the star pattern’s beacon, Arcturus. The ancient Chaldeans identified Arcturus with Papsukkal, the guardian messenger — messenger being the operative word because Arcturus has long been seen as the announcer of spring. As Martha Evans Martin reminds us in her 1907 book, The Friendly Stars: “When spring evenings fall, the splendor of Arcturus burns forth in the eastern sky ‘announcing the end of the purple twilight.’ ”

Arcturus is the brightest star north of the celestial equator, just outshining Capella, the Alpha star in Auriga the Charioteer. A classic orange giant star 37 light-years distant, Arcturus appears splendidly “chatty” to the eye, randomly spitting out colors as it twinkles, like words on fire. This bold chatter may be why in Ptolemy’s Almagest, Arcturus is et nominatur Audiens, which means the star “calls upon hearing.” This may refer to the fact that Nekkar (Beta [β] Boötis), whose name means “to beckon,” appears to be calling out to Arcturus as it closes in on the Great Bear in the drive.

Then again, in the eyes of early Arabian skywatchers, Nekkar — together with Gamma (γ), Delta (δ), and Mu (μ) Boötis — belonged to a pack of hyenas lying in wait of the Herdsman’s flock. So Nekkar’s cry may just be a celestial call of the wild.

In case you can’t hear Nekkar or its kin, early Arab astronomers spelled it out for you: Theta (θ), Iotα (ι), and Kappa (κ) Boötis, three stars that collectively represent the “Whelps of the Hyenas.”

As always, give me a shout at