The Nightsky: Primordial Stage of Storytelling

Matthias Naglschmid
Jan 4 · 7 min read

A short trip around the solar block: The seven main constellations of the celestial sphere and what the stars tell us about navigating our homeworld.

“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” — J. Masefield.

Long exposure of the night sky at Uhlandshöhe — Stuttgart, Germany — 2015

Writers do not own storytelling — it is a term in need of a better word. storytelling is not confined to a single medium. It connects all mediums. Word, music, sculpture — character: it is the binding aether between everything else. It is a placeholder for that which is before, during, and at the end of the creative endeavor. Storytelling is meta because storytelling creates new storylines (think all the art van Gogh inspired with his own life story). And above all — Storytelling has no boundary. You can always find more detail to enrich a story. Still, the attention span of an audience has limits, and a story is nothing without an audience. So the big question is, how to say more with less detail. Because detail needs to be processed, it takes brainpower. If there is one thing an audience hates: it is wasting their brainpower because you were too lazy to find an emotional or subconscious way of telling the same thing. There is always a balance. The other trap is over-simplification, replacing everything with tropes, visuals, polished production, or style. A good story has a simple plot, few emotions — can exist without visuals — but is rich in the dynamic between characters and plot points. One of the best tips a writer can get about character development is to think about what shoes the character wears. Here is another: Think about the sky your story is playing under. How does your story reflect the endless lore and myth of the celestial stories?

The Orion constellation — the distinct hourglass shape with its tilted belt — ranks without a doubt amongst the most recognizable features upon the night sky. One of the Big Seven: Orion (the Hunter), Cassiopeia (W-shape), Big Dipper (handcart), Pleiades (cluster of seven), Polaris (North Star), the planet Venus (morning star, sometimes), and our own Milky Way (star river).

“Rise of Sirius and Orion” — digital concept-art “Curse of the Pharaohs” — 2020

The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia lead you to the North Star — which in return settles our cardinal directions. A very intriguing, however bland mathematical truth: If walking upon a 2D-Surface (planet) — a single point in 3D-space (star) gives you a sense of the direction you are going. A relative sense of motion. What is doesn’t tell you in which direction you came from: that which makes relative information absolute. Now, of course, if you are facing — let’s say — South-East, it is clear that you must have come from the opposite direction: North-West. So it does give you a past direction. Well, here’s the kicker: If you could walk on a perfectly straight line — yes! — but the world ahead usually isn’t a straight line. A journey crosses rivers and mountains, deserts and oceans — day and night. Small errors and missteps add up like pearls on a string, and we deviate from the perfect line. That is the navigator’s curse.

“Imperfection — the continual summation of small infinitesimal irregularities” — snapshot on top of the Feldberg, Southern Germany — 2015

You could compromise — and early seafarers did exactly that — navigating the exception, traversing only along one axis. That eliminates any error along the other axis (there being two: East-West and North-South). The concept is quite simple. If you know the altitude of the North Star, then you know your latitude. The angle between the horizon and the North Star equals your inverse latitude. E.g., 60° altitude equals 30° latitude and vice versa. You check that measurement every night on the high sea, and you get something of a plot. If you notice drifting north or south (observed by a change of altitude/latitude), you can counter by “steering a little to port.” The next night you check again if that course correction produced the aspired result. Do that with diligence and precision, and you can sail a straight eastern/western path between continents. All you need to do is measure the altitude of the North Star (what a lucky chance that there’s a distinct star (almost) exactly falling together with the celestial north pole.)

“Checking the altitude of the North Star, gives you your latitude”

The famous Jacob’s staff or cross-staff was such a tool, devised to measure the altitude of a celestial body, and so is the octant or sextant. Now you would look through a sextant like through a telescope — looking straight at the horizon. One half in front of it is covered by a small fixed mirror. That fixed mirror is oriented at a bigger adjustable mirror, which you lever on a scale until the star/moon/sun is at level with the horizon in the unobscured tube half. This is called shooting or sighting an object. Don’t be irritated if you ever look upon one — the scale is halved, meaning 90° are levered at 45° (because of the mirrors). That also explains the name octant (Latin: octo), the eighth of a circle being 45°, which gives you a range of altitude of 90°. And you wouldn’t need to rely on the North Star solely. You could perform the same observation with the sun, but here be dragons — hic svnt dracones.

The working principal of a nautical sextant and my DIY-prototype model called “Sternenschuss”

The trick with the North Star — as with any other true star, except the sun — is that it is far away. So far, that any relative motion of our planet pales in comparison and that it is — by random chance — nearly perfectly aligned with the earth’s rotation axis. It’s always on the same spot, no matter the time of day or night. However, that trick doesn’t work on any celestial body within the solar system itself (sun, moon, venus, etc.) because they are in relative motion to us as well. That means that if you want to calculate (it’s already calculated, not measured) your latitude by reference to the sun’s altitude, you would already need to know the time of year, the time of the day, and the declination of the earth’s rotation axis. Why those three additional values? First — unlike the North Star — the sun is not aligned with the earth’s rotation axis (quite the opposite, actually). That means the sun doesn’t pass over the sky just because of the earth’s rotation but also because of the rotation axis’s misalignment. Assume for a second, the sun would be directly over the pole — there would be no day/night cycle — just an eternal day/night side, even though the earth still rotates). That is an important addition because the axis is tilted from a perfect 0° by 23.5°. It has a declination (and even worse, that declination rotates itself every 26000 years — called precession). And of course, last but not least, the earth revolves around the sun during the year. In conclusion, earth [1.] revolves and [2.] rotates, [3.] but shitty.

Stone monument on Orkney Islands, Scottland GB 2018

So, again we measure the sun’s altitude. Still, now we have to do so at exactly noon (highest — true altitude: to compensate for earth’s rotation and non-alignment of the rotation axis with the observed body). But then we still have to compensate between the +23,5°to -23,5° of earth’s rotation axis. Finding the true altitude, you have to know when it’s noon. You follow the sun rising around midday, and if it doesn’t rise any higher: noon! One problem solved. Now we introduce the solstices and count the days between them (measuring the angle between the sun’s altitude at noon during winter and summer solstice gives us the declination of earth’s rotation axis). Now we can determine our latitude from the sun’s altitude at noon (counting the days between the solstices and knowing the declination value of 23,5°).

Now for the reckoning the longitude … essentially you need a clock — the most sought-after military advantage of the 18th century: A long-running clock, resistant against humidity, temperature, motion, salty air. The genius principle behind the “timekeeping for longitude” reckoning is this: Everything of the night sky is a cycle. Cycles with different speeds, because they are out of sync, yes — but they are all repeating within the dimension of time. So is the longitude of your coordinates because the earth rotates. If you have knowledge about a cycle in the sky, and you can keep the time, you can assess the longitudinal distance. Meaning the distance between your current unknown position and the position you collected your knowledge of the cycle. In modern times that place of reference is Greenwich, England. And because the longitudinal information is by definition linked with timekeeping, the planet’s time reference is GMT — Greenwich Mean Time.

Planetarium Stuttgart — Zeiss Projector: Storytelling of Space-Time projected onto the Silverscreen

There you have it: The night sky is the burning Bifröst rainbow bridge between the dimensions. The plane of our planet’s sphere (2D), the space of our solar system and the cosmic dome (3D), and the passing of its cycles in time (4D) — the very fabric of world-building — the celestial stage. A scene header starts with day and night. We are talking about ticking clocks. It is all there, you just have to include it into your storytelling. World building starts with the sky above.

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