66: Abusive Astronomy

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Abusive Astronomy
Medium: Pencil on paper
Title text: Medium: Pencil on paper


An asterism is a pattern of stars that forms some sort of perceived shape in the night sky. Some of these are patterns used to name regions of the sky, as constellations. Modern astronomy organizes the sky into 88 constellations, but different cultures saw different patterns in the same night sky, going back at least as far as the Babylonians, and there are many other patterns and grouping of stars. The Pleiades (or Subaru), Orion's belt, and the Big Dipper are among the most common asterisms that we recognize today and are among the first taught to people with an interest in astronomy. The Pleiades is an open star cluster in the constellation of Taurus. It is a group of stars that formed from the same nebula and are moving together. Orion's belt comprises three stars that appear close in the sky, but are in fact at great distance from each other. The Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major. It can be used to help find the north pole star Polaris, which is an aid to night-time navigation.

During planetarium tours, the tour guide will point out popular constellations and stars; sometimes they will ask a question to get the audience involved in the presentation. Usually these people are big on showing the wonder of the galaxy and are all smiles, but people have bad days. The comic is presenting an especially aggressive way of introducing the night sky.

When astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere are showing stars to people, there will frequently be someone who points to the Pleiades and says, "There's the Big Dipper!" (both appear as a trapezium of stars, with a handle, though the Pleiades is much smaller). This gets frustrating about the 100th time that you encounter this error. So, this comic could show someone releasing their frustration on the misinformed public by pointing out that what they just pointed at is actually the Pleiades, then, pointing out that you can always locate the Pleiades by following the line of the stars in the belt of Orion, then, pointing out the REAL Big Dipper.

In the title text, Randall explains that he drew this comic as a line drawing on white paper, using only a pencil. The image was later inverted for publication.


Identifying star clusters:
[Image of a star cluster.]
This is the Pleiades, asshole.
Orion's Belt:
[Image of Orion's Belt.]
Only a moron couldn't find it.
This is the Big Dipper:
[Image of the Big Dipper.]
What the hell is wrong with you?


As noted in the title text, the drawing for this comic was originally done in pencil, then inverted. Here is a re-inverted version of the file, to show (approximately) what the original drawing looked like.

Inverted version of the comic.

Alternatively, Randall may be using sarcasm when saying that the medium is pencil on paper, since it would be incredibly impractical and nearly impossible to draw the uniform black background while leaving white gaps for stars (assuming it was not inverted).

At the very bottom of the about page on xkcd, Randall answers the question What is your favorite astronomical entity? with The Pleiades.

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Actually, I don't quite get it. Since it's one of the early xkcd strips, it is somewhat different from the latter ones. I would suppose he is making fun on how it is impossible to guess what the constellations are, as they just look like a bunch of stars clumped together (definitely not like a belt). 03:52, 25 October 2012 (UTC) NariOX

The first one looks like a certain male part, the second looks like a pencil, I can't figure out the last one though...

Constellations are NOT "formally known as asterisms." They are defined area of the celestial sphere. Asterisms are star formations that are part of constellations (e.g. Orion's Belt) or can span multiple constellations (e.g. the Summer Triangle and Winter Hexagon.) Constellations are more formally called, um, constellations. Subwoofer (talk) 22:23, 6 September 2013 (UTC)

I have been stargazing quite a lot in the last year and I can tell that those constellations are rather simple to recognize in the night sky; especially the Orion's belt, only someone completely inept wouldn't be able to find it, in the Northern Hemisphere. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Never knew about the confusion with Pleiades, always though it was between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. -- Flewk (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Big Dipper is a Ladle. For taking drinks, perhaps, from the drinking gourd. Referenced from abolitionist movement times. http://pathways.thinkport.org/secrets/gourd1.cfm ((GlitchedOut))