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Desert Diary
Physics/North Star


The dreamer, gazing up at the North Star in the nighttime sky, might very well feel a connection with all the star gazers of the past, because surely—though people may come and go—the sky's eternal. The satisfaction felt undoubtedly is real, but an unchanging sky is an illusion. Not that the positions of the stars have changed all that much during mankind's brief existence. It's just that our restless earth is not satisfied with its drifting continents, the rise and fall of mountains, and the like. It just has to go and wobble on its axis like a toy top does as it runs down.

Today, the North Star sits at the center, as the universe seems to circle around it. However, thanks to the wobble, the peoples of our desert some 6,000 years ago gazed upon a north star that now forms the end of the handle of the Big Dipper. Even now, we drift away from our pole star—but fear not. In another 26,000 years or so, Polaris will assume the role once again.
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

view of northern sky

A time exposure of the northern sky. As the earth rotates clockwise, the stationary stars appear to move counter clockwise, leaving the streaks of light on the film. Polaris, the North Star, is the bright line near the center of the view, lying about 1° from the north celestial pole. Image courtesy of Kodi Jeffery.



Bradley, R. S. 1999. Paleoclimatology. Reconstructing climates of the Quaternary. Harcourt/Academic Press, San Diego. 613 pp.

Web Resources

Bad Astronomy, but good explanation.