Mizar and Alcor

As a Boy Scout, I was on the Staff of Camp Napowan in Wild Rose, Wisconsin.  I worked in the Nature Area.  One of the merit badges I taught was astronomy since I could (and still almost can) identify every constellation in the Northern Hemisphere.  Twice a week, at around 10:00 pm – when the sun’s last wisps of light had dipped below the horizon and darkness ruled – I would gather those working on their Astronomy Merit Badge to gaze at the stars above.  Camp Napowan was in the middle of nowhere – blessed with no light pollution and a clear and amazing view of stars, planets and nebulae.   

To get the evening off on the right foot, it was often the middle star of the handle of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) that I would first mention to the gathering.  “Look carefully” I would say.  “What do you see?”  After a few seconds, the Scouts would begin to say that there were actually two stars — not one. 

2,000 years ago, Arabs would use that middle star of Ursa Major as a test of sight.  Why?  Because there are actually two stars:  Mizar and its fainter companion Alcor.  “Horse” and “rider” in Arabic.  If you could see them, you were thought to have great vision.  In Japanese mythology, Alcor was the “lifespan” star.  If one could not see jimyouboshi, they might pass away by year’s end.  

If you have a chance to go to some place where when the sun goes down, the lights don’t shine, take a look and see if you can see Alcor.  Bring binoculars too.    

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