Dark Sky Park: Mother Goose: Astronomer

May 17, 2013

IPR: Many times here we have made references to Mother Goose nursery rhymes and their connection to the night sky. Are these just whimsical attempts to memorize the constellations? 

MARY: The first historical Mother Goose was a French gentleman from the 1600s by the name of Charles Perrault. He published a book called "Tales and Stories of the Past With Morals" which was subtitled: "Tales of Mother Goose." Perrault was an author and with his brother Claude, he worked for King Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King. While it was his brother Claude who designed the east wing of the Louvre Palace as well as the Paris Observatory, it was Charles who suggested the 39 fountains in the gardens at Versailles, based on the 39 fables of Aesop.

In his rendering of the "Tales of Mother Goose" we find many familiar rhymes and, tucked in, we find these references to the starry world. For instance, "Sing a song of six-pence, a pocket full of rye, Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie…"

"Four and twenty" is a direct reference to the number of hours in a day. And as the rhyme goes on, we are introduced to the King, which is the constellation Cepheus; in his counting house, which is the Milky Way - the Queen, which is Cassiopeia; eating bread and honey, which is a reference to the beehive cluster at the center of the constellation Cancer - then there's the maid, Virgo, who gets her nose nipped off by a blackbird, the constellation Corvus, positioned directly beneath the maiden Virgo in the sky.

IPR: And can we see all of this in the month of May?

MARY: All of this and more! Old Mother Goose takes flight this month, astride her gander, the constellation Cygnus, which is rising up in the northeast on May evenings. In addition to finding the stars behind six-a-song-of-sixpence overhead, we can also find "Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle" in the stars. 

A quick run through this rhyme reveals a specific reference to the stars overhead in this month, which is primarily given away by the line "the cow jumped over the Moon." The cow is a reference to the constellation Taurus, and the New Moon of May is said to be in the sign of Taurus. So the cow jumps over the Moon. The Cat is a reference to Leo the Lion, which is chasing the little dog, Canis Minor, to the west and over the horizon. The fiddle can be likened to the lyre, or stringed instrument, which we see overhead as the constellation Lyra, with the bright star Vega. The dish and the spoon are the Milky Way and the Dipper. In May, you will notice that Cygnus just starts to rise up in the northeast. Cygnus appears as though flying along the Milky Way, which is as flat around the horizon as it can get this month, like a plate, or a dish, and it seems to have "run away" from view. And while this is occurring, the Big Dipper, is straight up overhead: The dish runs away with the spoon!