How to Find Favorite Constellations

04UmbrellaPlanetariumThe Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) are two of the best-known constellations for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere. They are easy to locate. And having found the Dippers, you can also track W-shaped Cassiopeia (KASS ee oh PEE yuh). All you need is a portable planetarium.

To make an Umbrella Planetarium (very portable), paint three constellations onto the underside of an umbrella, as shown. Point your umbrella at the North Star, and rotate the stick counterclockwise. Voila, the nightly and seasonal motion of the circumpolar stars.




Find the North Star

01FirstFindNorthStarTo find the Dippers, first find the North Star (Polaris). Look due north, about one-third to one-half of the way up from the horizon.

  • If you are in Los Angeles (34 degrees latitude), Polaris is 34 degrees above the horizon.
  • If you are in Seattle (47 degrees latitude), Polaris is 47 degrees above the horizon.

From anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere — any time of year, any time of night — Polaris is due north and x degrees above the horizon, where x = degrees north of the equator for your location. At the North Pole (90 degrees latitude), the North Star is at the top of the sky.




02LookInCircleEven if you can’t find Polaris (often too faint to see under city lights), look in a large circle around its estimated location. The Big Dipper is bigger, brighter, and easier to find.

  • Because of Earth’s rotation, the Big Dipper appears to circle Polaris every 24 hours.
  • Because of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the Big Dipper’s starting point each night appears to advance a little in the counterclockwise direction.

Knowing about the Big Dipper’s circle, you can predict where to find this constellation during each season of the year. If you are out for several hours, you can follow the Big Dipper’s slow progress around the circle and estimate the time.




Note: Click images to enlarge.





With observations taken in mid-evening, Spring finds the Big Dipper high in the northern sky, well above the North Star (more than two hand widths, held at arm’s length). By Summer, the Big Dipper’s nightly starting point has inched one-quarter of the way around its circle. Notice how the two forward stars of the pot always point to Polaris. In the Fall, the Big Dipper approaches the horizon and may disappear for viewers in southern latitudes (in Florida, for example). Look for Cassiopeia, which travels around the same circle as the Big Dipper but on the opposite side. Near the middle bump of this W-shaped constellation, astronomer Tycho Brahe observed a supernova in 1572. In Winter, the Big Dipper climbs toward the top of the sky again, now three-quarters of the way around its circle. The Little Dipper, with Polaris at the tip of its tail, sweeps around the circle like the hand of a clock running backwards.


Disclaimers: The North Star is visible from the Northern Hemisphere. Sorry, Southern Hemisphereans!

The seasonal positions shown for the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia assume a viewing time in the mid-evening. When viewed at later times, these constellations will be seen to have moved along their circular paths in the counterclockwise direction.


05RevEarthPolarisWhy Polaris Is Aways Seen in the Same Location

A line drawn through the South and North Poles points directly to the North Star.


Coming soon . . .

South-Facing Constellations


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Thru — A Tale of Tangled Spelling

Thru — A Tale of Tangled Spelling

Thru was one of the more successful initiatives of the spelling reform movement. You see it on highway signs and in certain kinds of military paperwork. From 1939 to 1975, copy editors at the Chicago Tribune changed every through in the paper to thru.

The selling points for thru were easy to understand:

  • Fewer letters
  • Spelled as it sounds

And yet the dictionary spelling continues to be through, with thru listed as an informal variant.

Here is how through came to look the way it does.

LetterThornIn the early days of the English language (around A.D. 700), through was a four-letter word, and it was spelled as it was pronounced — like this:


The letter þ, looking like a p with a head-feather, is called a thorn. It dropped out of use after the 1400s, but before then it stood for the sound th. In the spelling of þurh, notice that:

  • The r and u were in reverse order back then. This kind of switch-around, called metathesis, happened a lot in the history of the English language. Bird, for example, used to be spelled and pronounced brid.
  • The final letter h was pronounced with a Germanic hocking sound, similar to the ch in Achtung!

As þurh evolved toward through, quite a few variant spellings accumulated — including thrughe, throughe, throgh, threu, threw, throu, thrwch, throwch, throche, and thro. These reflected pronunciations in different districts and, over time, by different generations. In Shakespeare’s time (circa 1600), there was growing demand for someone to put a stop to all the variant spellings.

Arrival of THE Dictionary


Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1796 edition). Photo: D’Youville College Archives, Buffalo, NY

Spelling lists had begun to appear in the late 1500s. Samuel Johnson completed the first English dictionary in 1755, followed in 1828 by Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. The success and enduring reputation of Webster’s dictionary were such that even today American dictionaries often have his name in the title.

With dictionaries came the concept of THE dictionary — an authority that ends dispute about the correct spelling and definition of any particular word. At some level, we understand there are many dictionaries produced by different publishers, but when we need to look up a word, we think of ourselves as going to THE dictionary — whichever one it may be. (It’s similar to THE hospital, as in: “Thousands of people go to THE hospital every day.”)

Once the concept of THE dictionary takes hold, it becomes difficult to introduce new spellings. The whole idea of THE dictionary is to extinguish variation. Nevertheless, in the late 1800s, when reformers were clamoring for all kinds of change — the vegetarians, the nudists, the advocates of good government — a spelling reform movement arose, and one of their favorite cases to lay before the public was the common sense of changing through to thru.

Theodore Roosevelt expressed interest in spelling reform, but the movement never rallied enough popular support for a makeover of THE dictionary. By the 1920s, the movement was in decline. Today, you can still see a few stalwart protesters at the national spelling bee, waving signs that say “Enuf!”

The lesson of history appears to be that we are willing to put up with quirks and contradictions, and we are willing to let children and foreigners struggle with silent letters and combinations that produce the most unexpected sounds (hey, we had to learn it; why shouldn’t they?) as long as we have THE dictionary to give the final word.

Modern lexicographers insist their job is to reflect rather than prescribe. But we continue to rely on THE dictionary. Nobody wants to go back to a time when through could also be spelled thrwche.

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