29 January 2006

Antipodean sojourn III: the skies and seasons

One of the obvious benefits of visiting Australia in January is that it’s summer in the southern hemisphere. One need hardly emphasize that anyone facing the prospect of a long Canadian winter would jump at the opportunity for even a brief respite from the ice and snow, as well as from the long nights and short days. In recent years I’ve discovered that I seem to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is worst right before Christmas and then slowly improves over the following months. As I do not require a lot of sleep, I was quite happy, during my Melbourne visit, to wake up with the sun around 5.30 in the morning – with the help of the kookaburra, of course. My first and last nights were spent at the Holiday Inn at the airport, where my rooms faced east. This accorded me a breathtaking view of sunrise.

Somewhat to my surprise, being in the southern hemisphere played havoc with my sense of direction, which is usually quite good. When Ken Dickens and I drove into the city on Wednesday afternoon, I acted as navigator and kept a map open as we tried to find our way to the state parliament building on Spring Street. Unfortunately, my sense of direction often failed me, due, I am forced to conclude, to the sun being in the “wrong” part of the sky! I am generally not aware of taking my bearings from the sun, but I suppose I must do so on at least a subconscious level. I did get used to it eventually, but at first it was mildly disorienting.

The Australian flag, with Southern Cross (Source: CIA)
The sun didn’t set until about 9.30 pm. Although I love the long days, I did not spurn the darkness. In fact, after sunset I deliberately walked into the grassy area to the north of Glenn College to view the night sky. Wanting to pack as much as possible into my visit, I had brought along a 36-year-old foldup National Geographic map of the heavens, showing sky charts for the 12 months and for each hemisphere. Never having seen the southern hemispheric constellations, I looked forward to taking these in for the first time. The first night was somewhat cloudy, so I had some difficulty identifying all but the major stars – except for those of Orion, which is visible in the northern hemisphere as well and is sufficiently distinctive to make it easily recognizable. The second night was clear, so I went out again with my sky charts and was quickly able to locate the famous Southern Cross, which adorns the flags of Australia and New Zealand, as well as those of Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island, the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales, and the Northern and Capital Territories. I was able to identify this constellation by its relationship to Alpha and Beta Centauri, which point to it. (As some may know, Alpha Centauri is a three-star system, one of whose members, Proxima Centauri, is closest of all the stars to our solar system, at a “mere” 4.22 light years away.) Unfortunately, because of the artificial light on campus, I could make out only the three brightest stars of the cross.

Orion as emu (Source: NASA/ABC Science Online)
In the northern sky is Orion, which appears “upside down” relative to its position as seen in the northern hemisphere. One of the conference participants gave me an amusing account of an aboriginal interpretation of this inverted constellation. It seems that the scabbard hanging from Orion’s belt was deemed by some aboriginal communities to be a phallus pointing upwards. Its bearer, Nirunja, was seen to be chasing the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) with evident amorous intent. One assumes this piece of native folklore isn’t covered in school astronomy units until the upper grades! I understand that other aboriginal Australians view Orion as an emu, which is probably more suitable for the younger pupils.

Back to the daylight hours. I was told that Australians tend to suffer from skin cancer at higher rates than people in other western countries, due, of course, to prolonged exposure to the sun. Therefore, many Australians wear hats, including the famous Akubra hat, which has attained something approaching iconic status in that country. I myself would like to have acquired one of these – or at least a near imitation. However, as I found them priced at a level too high for my comfort, I decided to forego the privilege.

Ever since John F. Kennedy popularized the bare-headed look in the early 1960s, few North American men wear hats anymore. I suppose I’m the exception to this nearly half-century-old fashion trend. Indeed, people tend to know me by my hats, which change with the seasons and take up far too much space at the top of our front closet. Here in Canada, of course, the motivating factor is not so much the sun as the cold. To be sure, some think I’m making a fashion statement, but I actually get sick less frequently than I used to in my younger days before donning the chapeau. Probably the only thing that would keep me healthier would be to spend our winter months in – well, Australia.

Next: Antipodean sojourn IV: Australians.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com