COSMOS; A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 8, “Sisters of the Sun,” weaves the mythic and astrophysical lives of the stars into the history of the role women have played in our deepening understanding of nature.
The constellation of the Pleiades provides a vehicle for us to explore myth, astrophysics,
and the sociology of science. Our distant human ancestors used the Pleiades as a clock to time their planting seasons, making agriculture possible and as a result our species moved indoors and lost sight of them altogether. For the early Celtic people, the Pleiades became a symbol for what we now call Halloween. This open star cluster also played a role in the Native American Kiowa legend of the formation of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. When the ancient Greeks looked up at the Pleiades, they also saw Orion lustfully chasing the seven sisters across the sky – a hot pursuit lasting eons. The modern “sisters of the sun” were a team of early 20th century female astronomers at Harvard, led by two deaf scientists. Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt worked with dozens of women to classify some 400,000 stars. It’s also the story of young British beauty Cecilia Payne, the genius who joined forces with them. Payne’s courageous defiance of the world’s leading astronomer gave us our understanding of the true
composition of the stars. The Ship of the Imagination makes us an eyewitness to the lives and deaths of stars – including our own Sun. We travel through the Window on the Future to experience the last perfect day on Earth… And to the world of a binary star system to witness its own cataclysmic demise.
We venture deep into the Australian outback, away from the light pollution of cities to see
the stars as sharply as our ancestors must have seen them. We are searching for Eta
Carina, some 7500 light years away, and the evil twin that will gravitationally torment it until
it becomes… not a mere supernova, but a hypernova that will one day light up the night in
the southern hemisphere like another full moon!
We visit a Tuscan vineyard to see how sunshine is transformed into moonshine.
And finally, a trip to the planet of a star orbiting a globular cluster where a still “more
glorious dawn” awaits –- not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise, a morning filled with two hundred
billion suns – the rising of the Milky Way.
• In this episode, we explore two mythic explanations for the existence of the Pleiades.
Pick a constellation and find three myths from different cultures that explain how it came to be in the sky.
• There are many different kinds of stars. Pick one kind and write its biography.
• Novas, supernovas, and hypernovas are three of the fates a star can have. What is it
about a star that leads to such a dramatic destiny?
• How is it possible to take a star’s light, its spectrum, and know what it’s made of and
what its fate will be?
• The Carina Nebula is a star-making machine. If you could travel as fast as light, it
would take you 50 years to cross it. Where does the matter that makes these new
stars come from?
Relevant Scenes from COSMOS
• Act One: Pickering’s Computers
• Act Two: Annie Jump Cannon’s Story of Starlight
• Act Three: What It All Meant
• Act Four: The Final Living Creatures on Our Lonely Planet
• Act Five: Something Far More Catastrophic
• Act Six: A Still More Glorious Dawn
For a deeper dive, more subjects touched on in Episode 8:
• Ancient Green and Kiowa myths of the Pleiades
• Origin of Halloween
• Annie Jump Cannon
• Henrietta Swan Leavitt
• The Draper Star Catalogue
• Stellar spectra
• Classification and atmospheres
• Cecelia Payne
• The fates of the Moon, Earth, and Sun
• Binary and other multiple star systems
• Eta Carina hypernova
• The fate of the stars in Orion and the Pleiades
Written by Ann Druyan
Produced by Cosmos Studios
All rights reserved, Cosmos Studios. For distribution to FOX affiliates to accompany the original broadcast distribution of COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey.