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Sirius rising

Those of us who have come from Britain will never have seen the summer stars as we see them here in Egypt. Back home, in the high latitudes, twilight lingers on till after 11.00 pm, a beautiful time for long conversations in the grass but useless for viewing the Milky Way. Better to go punting through the glades in Oxford than bother searching the heavens. But if you are lucky to be in Egypt, this is the time to hit the High Mountains of Sinai where the evenings are dark and cool, with no light pollution intruding upon one of the finest night skies this side of the Hubble telescope.

Summer is the best time to view the Milky Way since you are looking directly into its central hub, a whirling maelstrom of stars so far away they dissolve into a brilliant white haze. In winter, by contrast, when the stars are more evident in northern climes, the Milky Way has wheeled round so that you can only gaze through its tenuous outer rim, little aware that we belong to a galaxy of over 400 billions stars.

And that’s not all! In summer in Egypt, you can see Scorpio clambering high across the sky while at the latitudes of England it just scuttles across the horizon. Scorpio is one of the brightest constellations of the Zodiac, and one of the rare ones that actually looks like it’s intended to, a scorpion, tooled up to kill, a pair of slashing claws and a sting poised to strike. It even has a heart, a red star, Antares, slumbering in its breast, preparing to explode one day as a supernova.

Scorpio is part of a band of stars known as Gould’s Belt, containing most of the bright constellations in the sky, from Orion to the Southern Cross, created by a collision that took place 50 million years ago between an intergalactic dust cloud and our own Milky Way. The impact sent shock waves pounding through the cloud which caused regions of dust and gas to collapse into thermonuclear fireballs, our stars. The largest of these would have survived only a few 10’s of millions of years before exploding as supernova and sending out further shock waves to trigger further regions of star birth. Successive generations of star birth and blast, spreading out from the original impact eventually gave rise to the constellation of Scorpio, about 5 million years ago. And now Antares, its brightest star, is approaching the moment when it too will explode and trigger further regions of star formation.

We are lucky Antares is so far away (500 light years). It wasn’t so lucky for the unassuming mollusks and plankton in our seas 2 million years ago. They were rendered extinct by the radiation from another massive supernova explosion in the same constellation, when our solar system, drifting slowly through the Milky Way, was a mere 150 light years away. Egypt had already been formed, the land lifted out of ancient seas by tectonic movements. Mammals and ostriches roamed its savannahs, and an early hominid, loping along, may have glanced up and noticed the star, brighter than any seen before, lighting up the Southern sky for several weeks before it finally faded away.

It’s important to remember that along with its sandy deserts and coral seas, Egypt also has its starry skies. The earliest representation of the Zodiac may have been hacked off the ceiling of the temple of Dendera by Napoleon’s savants and locked up in the Louvre, but Egypt has kept its stars and its history!

It was the Egyptians who first calculated a calendar of 365 days in the year, and it was they who realized it wasn’t perfect, that a discrepancy of ¼ day meant that over a thousand years the seasons would slip back slowly through the year. It was they who used the first appearance of Sirius in the morning twilight as a more reliable indicator of the seasons and the flooding of the Nile. It was they who aligned the temples of Philae and Hathor with the first appearance of Sirius on the Eastern Horizon. It was they who identified Sirius with Isis, mourning for the death of Osiris, her brother, identified with the constellation of Orion. It was they who kept the dead 70 days between mummification and burial, the same period as Sirius disappears from the night skies. And it was they who saw resurrection with its return.

We can still find meaning in the stars. Fifteen billion years ago, the Big Bang fed hydrogen and helium into the universe to be transmuted by the thermonuclear reaction of stars into the elements of life and planets: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, sulphur, nickel and iron. In their terminal blasts, the stars flung the elements into space to form clouds of dust which formed later generations of stars. Without the stars, there would be no dust. Without the long period of time since the Big Bang, there wouldn’t be enough dust in the universe to form a small rocky planet within a comfortable distance of a long lived star where life could be seeded in its pools of liquid water. It may be a long time, but it’s just the right time. And we are just the right size too. Just as fluctuating quantum forces direct the life of a star and gravitational forces mold the universe, living organisms are integrated and coordinated by electrical signals between atoms. These are overwhelmed by the heat in the centre of a star and are too slow to transmit signals or regulate intelligence in something the size of the universe. If there is intelligence in the universe it has to be our size. And though it’s often thought that we are an insignificant fleck in an indifferent universe, we are still at the centre of any space-time model that has the universe expanding symmetrically around us. Modern science has placed man bang in the middle.

So take some time out to lie back in the sand and gaze out into the deep space that spawned us while feeling the Earth that nurtured us turn slowly towards the sun.

This article first appeared in summer 2010 in the Oasis magazine of the Maadi Community Services Association Egypt to promote astronomy and star gazing in Sinai.