Writer explains the dog days of summer

Welcome, Dear Reader, to the Dog Days of Summer. Yes, once again, we find ourselves in that oh-so-magical time between July 3 and August 11, a time known for its stretch of hot, humid days. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days were thought by ancient Greeks and Romans to be a time of bad luck, drought, and unease, when dogs and men alike would be driven mad by the heat. Old timers still say “this weather ain’t fit for a dog.” Despite the references to actual canines, the Dog days actually got their name from the stars.

Dog Days is a reference to Sirius, the Dog Star. During this period, the Sun is in the same region of the sky as Sirius, which just so happens to be the brightest star (besides the Sun) visible from any part of Earth. Sirius is in the constellation Canis Major, or Greater Dog. In summer, Sirius rises and sets with the Sun. On July 23, Sirius is in conjunction with the Sun. Ancient Romans believed that it shone so brightly that particular day that it added heat to the already hot Sun. Their name for these days was “dies caniculares,” which means Dog Days.

Long before the Romans, and not only in summer, mankind has watched the stars. The earliest astronomers were likely priests in their individual cultures. A carved mammoth tusk, dated to approximately 32,500 years ago, depicts the first known star chart, specifically the constellation Orion.

Paintings in the Lascaux Caves in France (33,000-10,000 years ago) are believed to represent the Summer Triangle, the Pleiades, and the Northern Crown. Stonehenge, the Goseck Circle, and the Nebra Sky Disc are more examples of prehistoric astronomy.

Most, if not all, ancient cultures practiced astronomy. The Mesopotamians (or Chaledeans) are credited with the founding of Western astronomy and astrology. The Babylonians were the first to recognize that astronomical phenomena are periodic, and they applied mathematics to their prediction. Babylonian astronomy formed the basis of Greek, Indian, Iranian, Syrian, and Western European astronomy, and later civilizations built upon these findings.

Leaping forward to 1543, Nicholas Copernicus put forward the shattering theory that the planets revolved around the Sun (heliocentric), not the Earth. Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton embraced the new theory and expanded on it. In 1608, a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey applied for a patent on the first telescope. He did not receive the patent, but the design spread throughout Europe. Galileo and Kepler made some of the most notable improvements and used telescopes in their studies of the heavens.

Isaac Newton is credited with inventing the first reflecting telescope in 1668. The achromatic lens was developed in 1733 by Chester Moore Hall. This eliminated color aberrations and enabled telescopes to be shorter and more functional. Still, range was an issue, and starting around 1900, ever larger telescopes began to be built. Around 1970, the alt-azimuth mount made even larger telescopes possible, even as large as 10 meters.

These giant telescopes used to be off limits to average people. Happily, that is not the case, at least for us. You see, just over an hour away in Goddard sits the Lake Afton Public Observatory. The observatory features a 16-inch F/13 Ritchey-Chretien telescope with a piggyback mounted 6-inch F/8 apochromatic refractor. For us average folks, that’s a really big telescope with great resolution. You can also check out the exhibit room with hands on learning tools, stargazing software, history of Astronomy, and virtual reality simulators. If you have your own telescope, bring it along—there’s an observation area outside.

Friendly volunteers are everywhere to answer questions and help you discover new things about our universe.

Unlike my previous recommendations, this one does have an admission fee, and it goes towards keeping the place running. Check out their website at www.lakeafton.com for prices and hours. They’re open Friday and Saturday nights year-round, weather permitting, but hours depend on when the sun sets. They run different programs throughout the year depending on what phenomena are occurring at the time.

If you want to have a very full day of stargazing, consider visiting the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson. It’s a bit pricey, but if you or your kiddos are really into space, it’s a must see. As a matter of fact, Kansas

students and up to two accompanying adults can get into the Hall of Space Museum for free until August 13. Check out www.cosmo.org for more information. You can also visit the planetarium, IMAX dome theater, and Doctor Goddard’s Lab. Again, see their website for pricing and hours. If you do go to Hutch, be sure to make a stop at Bogey’s for stellar burgers and shakes.

May your Ad Astra be without Per Aspera. In other words, I hope you have a great time and a safe trip and enjoy some great skywatching!

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