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A Star to Steer By

Many people think that Polaris, the North Star, is the brightest star in the sky. It’s not; there are dozens of brighter ones. What makes Polaris unique is its location.

At night, the stars appear to arc across the heavens as our planet turns beneath them. By chance, the axis of Earth’s rotation points almost directly at Polaris. Consequently, its position remains unchanged throughout the night while the other stars wheel around it. Find the North Star in the sky, and you’ll always know which direction is north.

Our ancestors used the North Star as a celestial compass. To the ancient Polynesians, whose legendary ability to navigate by the stars brought them to Hawaii and other far-flung islands of the Pacific, it was known as Hokupa`a – the stationary star.

To escaped slaves in nineteenth-century America, the North Star was a beacon that guided them to freedom in the north. One of them, Frederick Douglass, founded a newspaper with the goal of “aiming an important blow at slavery and prejudice.” He named it, fittingly, The North Star.

We humans aren’t the only ones who use the North Star to guide us. Some migratory birds and other animals do too. For example, experiments a half-century ago by Cornell University biologist Stephen Emlen showed that Indigo Buntings, which often migrate at night, learn to recognize the north-south direction from the apparent rotation of the night sky around the North Star.

Like travelers of old, we also set a course through life by our own inner North Star. “I have always instinctively followed an invisible star,” wrote Albert Camus in 1942.

It’s easy to lose our way in the rush of daily life, to forget who we are and what values we hold dear. Yet there’s a North Star within each of us, constant and shining, that will always guide us back to our true selves, to the right path. It’s that quiet inner voice that can’t be fooled, reminding us to do the right thing even when no one is looking.

It’s not always easy. We get lost. Make mistakes. When clouds descend on our lives, it can be hard to see the way forward. But our internal compass is always there. Sometimes we just need to tune out the chatter in our minds to hear with our hearts because the heart always knows the way.

Anne Mulcahy, the former CEO of Xerox, said it well: “Who you are, what your values are, what you stand for … They are your anchor, your North Star. You won’t find them in a book. You’ll find them in your soul.”

So find your North Star and keep it in your heart.  Stay true to yourself.



We’re delighted to share this poem by reader John Leng, who was inspired by last month’s found poem based on Stephen Hawking’s final scientific paper:

Michael has a Space-Time Game,
It’s into a Wormhole and out again.
Once inside that Holographic Space,
You must Pluck at Stephen’s Strings Apace,
For Words to Play Omar Khayyam,
Then to escape quantum mayhem.

– John Leng

Thanks, John!



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Dr. Michael West is an Astronomer and Lowell Observatory’s Deputy Director for Science. His monthly column covers topics ranging from current science to stories of folklore and our connection to the stars. Please note that Dr. West’s stories expire at the end of each month.