Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dog Days

“Doaaaaaagggg daaays are ovaaaahhhhhhh!” warbled Florence Welch on my car radio and from the look of the sky I couldn’t help agreeing with her. Right on cue an autumnal nip crept into the air on the final day of the school holidays. The only way is down till next March at least. It got me wondering though. What on Earth are dog days and are they actually over (other than in pop musings)? And while we’re at it why bring dogs into it in the first place? A problem given the Trouble With’s antipathy to all things pooch.

Dog days have been around for a long time, at least since
Aristotle in the 4th century BC and they refer to the hottest, most sultry days of summer. For some reason this period seems to have been perceived as a bit of a downer by the ancients. Full of fever and drought, mad people and well, mad dogs. Give or take a bit of rioting, we probably have a more up-beat view of the summer heat in modern Blighty, though anyone who has experienced the heat of high summer in Greece or Italy might think that the Romans were onto something sacrificing a dog appease the weather gods.

Though going out of your front door should be enough to tell that the hot bit of the year is finished I can confirm that the dog days are also officially over. The
very latest estimate of their end is early September and in most sources they are considered to be wrapped-up by late August. The name derives from the position of Sirius the “Dog Star” during the summer when it rises just before dawn. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought that the seeming increased proximity of the brightest star in the sky increased the temperature on earth. Though that might sound silly now, they had no idea that Sirius (actually two stars not one) was around 50 or so trillion miles away and even the new Lewes solar power station would have a bit of trouble picking up heat from it.

The “dog” part of the Dog Star is due to the location of Sirius in the constellation
canis major (the larger dog). One of the troubles with the ancient Greeks was that their names for the patterns of stars were fanciful to put it mildly. I mean look at this picture of Taurus. You might think “bull” but only about the possibility that Taurus remotely resembles a four-legged animal. Similarly canis major could be any number of things. To me it looks more like one of those giant mobile phones from the 1980’s or maybe a nice iron bath-tub on its side. Pity they didn’t think of that in ancient Athens. Every day in the summer could be a bath day. We might have been spared Keanu Reeves’ musical pretensions. And who wouldn’t pay to see a film called Bath Day Afternoon?

Lewes Astronomers put on a series of talks by guest speakers on the first Wednesday of the month in the Town Hall. Find details

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