A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

We'll always have Regulus

I find Paris disorienting.
First, I missed an entire nighttime. When my wife and I arrived at the airport to embark on our vacation it was a southern California late afternoon. When we landed – first in Zurich – it was a Swiss early afternoon. Somehow I had missed an entire fast-forward cycle of the sun setting, the stars rising, and the sun rising again, all in the space of about 4 hours. When I first closed my window shade and then closed my eyes on the airplane – somewhere over Salt Lake City, I think – I made a mental note to be sure to try to open up and see the sunrise – over Greenland, I guessed. But even for the fitful sleep of a bumpy airline seat the sunrise came too quickly. When the thought to open my eyes and look out the window finally solidified sufficiently inside my head we were already over Ireland. I slid the window shade open a tiny crack to take a peak and the entire darkened airplane cabin was blasted with late morning glare. My wife, still attempting to sleep in the seat next to me, added her own glare to that of the sun and I quickly closed the shade. By the time we landed in Zurich and then finally continued on to Paris the sun was already on its way down again, but, still, I feel like a lost nighttime in there somewhere. Nights are precious things, and one should not lose them lightly.
If losing a nighttime were not disorienting enough, I believe that the streets of Paris are uniquely designed to make me lose my sense of direction. I pride myself, most of the time, with having a finely tuned sense of direction. I tend to be able to get from point A to point B by dead reckoning, no matter how many twists and turns and detours are along the way. So on the streets of Paris my general navigational strategy is to take a look at a map to see where we are and where we would like to be, and then I head off in what seems to be the correct general direction knowing that I will get to where I’m going. But the streets of Paris are tough. It’s not just that they aren’t oriented along a north/south axis. It’s not even that they aren’t oriented along any single axis. And it is not even that the streets sometimes curve. It’s that all three of these occur in small quantities. A street that I am on starts out general north-northwest, which, in my head, I probably think of as “northish” and then the street slowly, imperceptible turns west or even perhaps a little south. I then take a left turn onto a street which I think of as going westish when, in fact, it is more like the north-northwest direction I was originally headed. Do that a few times and there is no telling which way you are really going.
The first night we arrived, jetlagged and awake at midnight, I thought it would be fun to walk down to the Seine to see Notre Dame lit up at night. Point A: our hotel. Point B: Isle de la Cite. Direction: north-nothwest. After about 45 minutes of walking in the bitter bitter cold (ok, I live in southern California, so the fact that it was only a few degrees above freezing qualifies as freezing for me) we stumbled out of some small twisty city streets directly into the Pantheon, which was indeed spectacular all lit up after midnight. I’d never been to the Pantheon before and didn’t quite know where we were. I finally got out the map. We were a block from our hotel. Point A to Point A in just 45 near-freezing minutes. My wife gave me a similar glare to the one from earlier that morning.
Paris is a city to which my wife and I have both been a few times, but which we do not know well. We’re staying in a part of town which I have never visited. Our college French is rusty. An after flying for 12 hours and missing a full sunset and sunrise and finding myself unable to make it to one of the most obvious landmarks in town and struggling to remember the French phrase for, say, “Excuse me, madame, but do you know why I seem to keep walking in circles?” I feel very very far away from home in Pasadena. Looking at the globe you can see just how far it is, as I kept explaining to Lilah, our 3 ½ year old, who wanted to understand exactly where we were going to be (a place she calls “Parisfrance”) while she stayed home with her grandparents. “Parisfrance is really really far away Daddy. If I were on the airplane I would have to fall asleep.” A wise girl, I think.
But then, still trying to straighten out my post-midnight rambling route, we hit a slight opening to the sky and the clouds clear a bit and there, a bit low in the sky in about the direction we’re heading is a bright star and a little backwards question mark of fainter stars. The constellation is unmistakably Leo. The star is Regulus.
“Let’s turn around” I say to my wife. “We’ll be going in exactly the right direction.”
It’s the same sky. Pasadenacalifornia or Parisfrance look out into the same night and lie underneath the same stars. Fly 12 hours, miss a sunset and sunrise, forget the language if you want, but Regulus will still be there. I used Regulus once to get myself unlost while driving in New Jersey trying to figure out the direction of the shore (my friend in the car with me couldn’t figure out why I pulled off the road, stuck my head out the door, and looked up, before making a U-turn, but that was the best you could do pre-GPS navigation) and used it to find Notre Dame.
I’ll show it to Lilah when I get home. “Hey Lilah, that star is called Reguls and I could see it from Parisfrance” and she might find it wonderful and mysterious and amazing that you can see the same thing from such different places. Or she might ignore me and say “Daddy Daddy I’m going to draw a picture of a ghost for you” or who knows what else. But I will remember that it is wonderful mysterious and amazing that that’s the same star that showed me which direction to turn on a tiny street after midnight in a big city halfway across the world.

[next week: a name for Orcus's moon. I haven't had a chance to read any of the suggestions yet (being on vacation in Paris), but I see that there will be many many to chose from. Stay tuned.]


  1. It's our cunning European ways, keeping straightforward Americans baffled.

    It is wonderful talking to someone quarter of a world away, able to see the same stars (half a world is difficult, though).

  2. "Nights are precious things, and one should not lose them lightly." Nice.
    I felt the same way about Paris the last time I went there.
    You'd be better off sleeping as little as possible the night before such an international flight. Aids in-flight sleep and reduces jet-lag wonderfully.
    And as for Regulus, well, I did the same thing, only mine was North Carolina and South Korea. Nice.

  3. And we, of course can see Regulus too, and a lot more besides, here in NZ! And just try a direct flight ! Days and nights "go west"!

  4. When I flew non-stop from San Francisco to Paris in April 1988, I left SF at about noon. Within 2 hours the sun had set. An hour later it rose again. To me, that was amazing.

    But more amazing was the trip home. We departed Paris about 20 minutes prior to sunset and arrived in San Francisco about 20 minutes after sunset. We followed the sunset around the globe, creating a prolonged 10 hour sunest. Dr. Brown, do get a window seat on the way home :)

  5. I'm amazed that you could see the questionmark from the middle of one of Europe's biggest cities. Do they have better light pollution controls over there?

  6. Chuck --
    I can even see it from here on the edge of LA. I think Paris is even better; less sprawl, less emotional need to shine lights directly into the sky. But that's just a guess....

  7. Next time you get lost between Pantheon and Notre Dame under a cloudy sky, let me suggest you use the general slope of the terrain as a guide. It naturally goes down to River Seine and, in that part of the city, is noticeable enough. Anyway, thanks for the nice story ! About disorientation, as a fellow northerner I got very disoriented during a long walk a sunny day in Sydney. I believe that the fact that the Sun moved in the sky in the "wrong" direction played an instrumental role in that.