Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight

Stargazing: Have a look tonight for the first star you might see in the heavens. Credit: D Reneke.
Stargazing: Have a look tonight for the first star you might see in the heavens. Credit: D Reneke.

The superstition of hoping for wishes granted when seeing a ‘shooting star’ may date back to the ancient world. Wishing on the first star seen at night may also be steeped in antiquity. The songs and traditions seem to have reached Britain by the early 20th century and since spread worldwide.

Nobody knows who wrote these famous lines or where they came from, but it’s one of the first rhymes we learn as kids. So, is there any truth in the saying “Starlight, star bright?” Well it so happens there is.

If you were to go outside tonight when it gets dark what do you think would the first star visible from your backyard? If you’re like most people you’d probably answer Venus – but you’d be wrong.

“Venus is a planet, not a star, but it does have the incorrect label ‘morning’ and ‘evening star’ because it’s so bright,” said Dave Reneke from Australasian Science Magazine. “You can’t blame people because it does in fact look like a star! The answer is Sirius. It’s the brightest star but not the closest. That honour belongs to Alpha Centauri.”

Sirius is a huge blue-white star and at 8.6 light years distant is twice as far away as Alpha. You know, if we replaced Alpha Centauri with Sirius right now there would be no night time on planet Earth. Sirius would be so bright we’d have eternal daylight!

“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is another rhyme we all grew up singing. It’s a popular English lullaby first published in 1806. Its sung to the tune of a melody arranged by Mozart who some say was inspired by seeing Sirius himself as a young boy growing up in Salzburg, Germany.

This romantic connection between poetry and our skies has roots much closer to home. One such example is “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight” and “Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning.” These sayings suggest that a particularly red sunset means clear weather is coming and a particularly red sunrise means it’s going to be bad weather or possibly a stormy day.

Is there any truth behind such forecasting? “You bet, Dave said. “In fact, a lot of people go by it rather than their local weather bureau.”