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Northern Hemisphere, John Flamsteed
Northern Hemisphere, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Throughout history people have assigned identities to star groups to guide their view of the changing sky, aid in recognizing months and seasons, and attribute religious significance. Appearance and disappearance of constellations likely signaled planting and reaping seasons for farmers, aided sailors in navigation, and guided travelers across deserts. The ascription of constellation names and stories aided memory and communication about the night sky.

Constellations recognized by astronomers today still correspond to many of those identified in ancient China and the Middle East. The oldest known drawings of constellations—on vases, official seals, and gaming boards—were made by Sumerians (in present-day Iraq) as early as 4000 B.C. The constellation Aquarius was named by the Sumerians after An, their god of heaven. Babylon and Assyria, later civilizations in the same geographic area, inherited the Sumerians' astronomical traditions and many of their myths and legends surrounding the skies. They developed a twelve-segmented zodiac, that is, a set of twelve constellations that lie in the annual path of the sun around the earth, as well invented a degree system to distinguish positions in the sky similar to latitudes and longitudes. Knowledge of the constellations spread from Babylon to Egypt, perhaps by way of Minoans from Crete who settled in Egypt. Early Greek scholars encountered knowledge of the constellations in Egypt, and changed many Arabic names to Greek. In 150 A.D., the Greek scientist Ptolemy published a book, known by its Arabic name, Almagest, in which he described 48 constellations, of which 47 are known today by the same name. In the sixteenth century, explorers from northern lands viewed the southern skies and named new constellations.

In the early twentieth century, the International Astronomical Union added 38 constellations to the ancient groupings and drew rectangular borders around all 88, permitting astronomers to divide the sky into segments in which they can locate stars. The brighter stars typically still have Arabic names, and they have also been assigned Greek letters and Arabic numbers.

The exhibition, Starry Transit: An Installation by Martha Glowacki, presented by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art at Washburn Observatory, was inspired by scientific research indicating that night migrating birds orient themselves by patterns of stars.

Glowacki constructed free-standing sculptures that contain interpretations of eight constellations, chosen for their shape and visibility in the night sky:
 
 

Orion Constellation
Orion constellation, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Orion the Hunter, visible from October through March in both hemispheres, is easily recognizable from all parts of the world and has been given a variety of identities by different societies. The Egyptians saw the god Osiris, North American Pawnees saw a deer, and South American Moche and Chimu peoples imagined a thief thrown to buzzards.

From Greek mythology, Orion is a hunter who faces the viewer. His head is supported by three stars at the top, the brightest of which is Meissa. His belt is shaped by three perfectly spaced stars, Mintaka at right, Alnilam in the center, and Alnitak at left. The Orion nebula can be seen below the belt as the second of the three points of light that form the hunter's scabbard. Betelgeuse is the bright reddish super-giant double star at upper left, at his armpit. This star is also part of the Winter Triangle.

North of Betelgeuse, six smaller stars outline Orion's right arm and club. Rigel, a brighter, more distant star, is his left knee. Saiph marks his right knee, and Bellatrix, the Amazon star, his left shoulder. A semicircle of stars extends out from his left arm. The belt of Orion acts as a pointer in two directions. To the northwest, it points toward Aldebaran in Taurus, the Bull, and on, past Aldebaran, toward the Pleiades. In the opposite direction, the belt of Orion points toward Sirius, the Dog Star.

Taurus Constellation
Taurus constellation, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Taurus is one of the earliest known constellations, likely identified by the Babylonians. In Greek mythology it is one of the two bulls tamed by Jason of the Argonauts. The great bull has a v-shaped head formed by the cluster Hyades, and an eye that is the bright star Aldebaran. At his shoulder is the cluster Pleiades or Seven-Sisters. Taurus's two horns stretch up to the left, with the star Nath at the tip of the northern horn. Sometimes the small dipper shape of this constellation is mistaken for the Little Dipper.

Triangulum Constellation
Triangulum constellation, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Triangulum is a tiny group of stars that form a right triangle appearing to point to the constellation of Aries. It is surrounded by the constellations Perseus to the north, Andromeda to the north and west, and by Aries and Pisces to the south. Only one of its stars has a name, Caput Trianguli, which is the head of the triangle. Deep in the constellation is the Pinwheel Galaxy. Triangulum was known to the ancient stargazers and was originally called Deltoton, in reference to the shape of the Greek letter Delta. Egyptian astronomers named it Nili Domus, after the shape of the Nile delta.

Ursa Major & Ursa Minor Constellations
Ursa Major & Ursa Minor constellations, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Ursa Major, the Great Bear, appears to walk beneath the North Celestial Pole, with the five major stars of the Big Dipper making up its hindquarters and tail (the stars, in order from right to left are Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, and Alkaid). The two outer stars of the bowl point to the North Star, Polaris. The front legs and snout are shaped by a curve ahead of the two pointer stars. There is another curve below the bowl that makes the hind legs.

Ursa Minor Constellation
Ursa Minor constellation, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Ursa Minor, the Lesser Bear is dominated by the form of the Little Dipper, which starts in the tail at Polaris (the North Star) and then swings down and to the right. The two brightest stars at lower right represent the front of the bowl of the Little Dipper, and are sometimes called the "Guardians of the Pole." The upper one is Kochab, the lower one Pherkad. Most of the Little Dipper is too faint to see.

Pegasus Constellation
Pegasus constellation, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Pegasus, the Flying Horse, is found by extending a line from the Pole Star through the end star of Cassiopeia. Pegasus is upside down, flying up into the sky. It is formed from the Great Square, whose stars are Alpheratz (Alpha Andromedae), which connects the Great Square with Andromeda, on the far left edge, Scheat, the upper right hand star that marks the forward shoulder, Markab, the lower right hand star that is diagonally across from Andromeda and marks the beginning of the neck, and Algenib at the bottom and on the horse's back. Pegasus was recorded as a constellation as early as 500 B.C.

Boötes Constellation
Boötes constellation, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Boötes, the Herdsman, rises, its kite-shaped figure stretching up from the bright orange star Arcturus, which is toward the lower right. Arcturus is the fourth brightest star in the northern sky. Izar, Delta, Nekkar, Seginus and Muphrid are the bright stars The stars of extreme northwest Boötes (including Theta and Lambda) lie near the end of the tail of Ursa Major.

Corona Borealis
Corona Borealis, John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, London: 1929. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, is a semicircle of stars opening to the left, like the crescent moon. It rises in the sky after Boötes and looks like a saucepan without a handle. Alphecca, or Gemma, is the bright star at the Crown's center; curving up and to the left are Nusakan (Beta) and Theta. Sigma is at far left center.

The exhibition, Starry Transit: An Installation by Martha Glowacki, presented by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art at Washburn Observatory, was inspired by scientific research indicating that night migrating birds orient themselves by patterns of stars. On the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the 1878 observatory still houses its original Clark refractor telescope and is used for stargazing by university astronomy classes and the public.
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