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Taurus, the Bull

Many ages ago, in the dream time of the aborigines of Australia, lived seven lovely ice maidens, daughters of a lofty, snow-topped mountain and the ice-cold stream that flowed from the hills. Although beautiful, they never warmed to the attentions of the mortal men who courted them. Then one day, Warrunnah, a naïve but clever young man, beguiled two of the maidens and took them to live with him in his village. The others returned to their home in the sky.

Of course, it was not long until Warrunnah discovered the truth that the sisters were ice maidens; that their beautiful silvery tresses were like the icicles that hung from the trees in winter. He was disappointed, and took the maidens to his campfire and tried to melt the icy crystals. As the ice melted, though, the water quenched the fire. The vestals remained ice maidens, but their cold brilliance had been dimmed.

The two sisters were welcomed and well treated in the village, yet they became increasingly lonely without the other five, and they longed to return to their former home above in the clear heavens. They could see their twinkling sisters beckoning to them from afar.

Wurrunnah sent the maidens into the forest one day to gather wood for their campfire. And after a short while, they met a great pine tree, which happened to be a member of their own totem. The pine tree extended itself to the sky and allowed the maidens to climb up, up, up to the home of their sisters.

But the two never regained the brightness they had lost to Wurrunnah’s fire, and that is why there are five bright stars and two dim ones in the Pleiades.

As the Australian aborigines considered the Pleiades to be the campfire of the women, they also thought the campfire of the men to be the group we know as the Hyades, also in Taurus. The women were clustered together so that they might enjoy telling stories among themselves. Some of the men sat quietly by their fire, but others were boastful and roamed about, shouting to all who would listen—the original Bull session!

Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. — Henry Beston, Forward to the eleventh printing, The Outermost House. January, 1949

The Pleiades are situated just four degrees off the ecliptic, and thus occultations of the cluster by the Moon occur quite frequently. This is a very pretty sight, and of course you can observe it with the naked eye, but any binoculars or small telescope will elevate the occultation to an outstanding observation. The next favorable such event will occur in September, 2006. Burnham points out that the Moon may be “inserted into the quadrangle formed by” Alcyone, Electra, Merope and Taygeta (the Moon would cover Maia and possibly Asterope if this should occur). Venus, Mars, and Mercury occasionally pass through the cluster—an occasion to watch for and enjoy.

  The Pleiades are identified by name in this view, adapted from a Mount Wilson photo. The stars Pater Atlas and Mater Pleione, in Greek mythology, are the parents of the sisters.
  This view was captured by Conrad Jung at Fremont Peak and demonstrates that there are many more stars in this spectacular cluster than just the Seven Sisters. Two 15-minute exposures were taken on Kodak Pro 400, using a 300-mm telephoto lens. The negatives were stacked to make an interpositive. Then two interpositives were stacked to make this final image.
  From atop the Spees Building, Skywalker Carter Roberts snapped this photo looking down onto the Pleiades Courtyard at Chabot Space & Science Center on November 17. [Carter's frisky antics are further demonstrated in his President's Report.] The double star at center is Alcyone; Merope is at left center; Maia is to the right of the tree.

At Chabot Space & Science Center, the Pleiades Courtyard is a memorial to the “Seven Sisters”—the crew of Challenger Space Shuttle Mission 51L. Each Pleiad is represented by a round, brass-framed, flat glass plate embedded in the concrete. The size of each disk is an approximate measure of the star's apparent magnitude. The symbols are lit by fiber optics, and each star is identified by name, also in embedded brass. The concept and execution of this public sculpture is by Bob Geering.


Very near the star, Zeta Tauri, that, in classical mythology, marks the tip of the Southern horn of the great bull is a fuzzy patch of light. In the mid-nineteenth century this faint, wispy cloud was studied by the Irish astronomer Lord Rosse. He thought it resembled a crab without claws and gave it the name “Crab Nebula.” In subsequent years, after determining its probable distance to be 4000 light-years, astronomers calculated the size of this object as well as its rate of expansion (about eight million miles per day). From these data, it was suggested that it must have originated about 950 years ago. On July 4, 1054, Chinese court astronomers had recorded a “guest star” in just this location. According to the notes of the Chinese, this nova was visible in the daytime, but diminished in brightness and disappeared within two years. Catalogued by Charles Messier as the first object, M1, in his list of nebulae, the ninth-magnitude Crab Nebula is a fine quest for your small-telescope viewing.

A number of interesting double stars are to be found in Taurus, beginning with Alpha Tauri, Aldebaran. The pair are separated by 31 seconds of arc, with the primary star of first magnitude; the secondary at magnitude 11. Half way between Zeta Tauri and El Nath (Beta Tauri) is a striking pair, Sigma 716. Lambda Tauri is an eclipsing variable with a period of just less than four days and ranging between magnitudes 3.8 and 4.1.

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