Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/388

This page has been validated.
378
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

names of the stars.

A glance at the heavens will make it evident that the problem of designating a star in such a way as to distinguish it from all its neighbors must be a difficult one. If such be the case with the comparatively small number of stars visible to the naked eye, how must it be with the vast number that can be seen only with the telescope? In the case of the great mass of telescopic stars we have no method of designation except by the position of the star and its magnitude; but with the brighter stars, and, indeed, with all that have been catalogued, other means of identification are available.

It is but natural to give a special name to a conspicuous star. That this was done in very early antiquity we know by the allusion to Arcturus in the Book of Job. At least two such names, Castor and Pollux, have come down to us from classical antiquity, but most of the special names given to the stars in modern times are corruptions of certain Arabic designations. As an example we may mention Aldebaran, a corruption of Al Dabaran—The Follower. There is, however, a tendency to replace these special names by a designation of the stars on a system devised by Bayer early in the seventeenth century.

This system of naming stars is quite analogous to our system of designating persons by a family name and a Christian name. The family name of a star is that of the constellation to which it belongs. The Christian name is a letter of the Greek or Roman alphabet, or a number. As a number of men in different families may have the same Christian name, so the Greek letter or number may be given to a star in any number of constellations without confusion.

The work of Bayer was published under the title of 'Uranometria,' of which the first edition appeared in 1601. This work consists mainly of maps of the stars. In marking the stars with letters on the map, the rule followed seems to have been to give the brighter stars the earlier letters in the alphabet. Were this system followed absolutely, the brighter stars should always be called α; the next in order β, etc. But this is not always the case. Thus in the constellation Gemini, the brighter star is Pollux, which is marked β, while α is the second brightest. What system, if any, Bayer adopted in detail has been a subject of discussion, but does not appear to have been satisfactorily made out. Quite likely Bayer himself did not attempt accurate observations on the brightness of the stars, but followed the indications given by Ptolemy or the Arabian astronomers. As the number of stars to be named in several constellations exceeds the number of letters in the Greek alphabet, Bayer had recourse, after the Greek alphabet was exhausted, to letters of the Roman alphabet. In this case the letter A was used as a capital, in order, doubtless, that it should not be confounded with the Greek α. In other cases smaller italics are