IDEA #16. Learn to identify at least three (or five, or ten) constellations. Be able to identify the North Star. Learn to spot a couple of planets.
A knowledge of the heavens has been the sign of a learned person in many cultures, and for an investment of relatively little time in generally pleasant circumstances a young person can gain a surprising degree of knowledge of astronomy. Although the makeup of constellations may seem obscure to some observers, familiarity with the unchanging layout of the stars can eventually bring an understanding of the patterns that our forebears once regarded as common lore. At various times of the year a number of planets are prominent in the night sky during the normal waking hours of most children, and the seasonal procession of constellations gives the knowing looker yet another way of measuring, and pondering, the passage of time.
There are a number of good astronomical maps and sites on the Internet, as are computer programs and apps for mobile devices that simulate in detail and with labels the night sky at any time of day from any location. There are also any number of excellent guidebooks and online sites dedicated to helping young observers learn about stars and planets, and several magazines—Astronomy and Sky & Telescope, in particular—carry detailed maps of each month’s night sky, including the phases of the moon and the appearance of planets and other non-stellar objects. A great, simple gadget is a planisphere, an adjustable star chart usually made of cardboard and available online or at many science museum gift shops–even educational toy stores.
There are telescopes available that can be programmed to aim themselves at specific astronomical targets, but these, though the prices are coming down, still run into the many hundreds of dollars for the most basic models. Of course, a mere ability to spout the names of a few constellations, and even to spot planets, is only the very beginning of a true knowledge of modern astronomy. Many of the better star guides are also good basic textbooks in the nature of the universe, with discussions of the many types of stars, galaxies, and nebulae and in-depth features on planets, asteroids, and comets. Knowing where the Pleiades are relative to the moon will no longer make one a sage, but being able to understand the patterns, forces, and elements of the universe is still a sign of an essential intellectual engagement with the world around one.