Connecting with people: Developing unity and understanding under the night sky

Professor Richard Hechter


Richard Hechter is an Associate Professor of Science Education in the Faculty of Education, Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the University of Manitoba. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota where he studied the science teaching self-efficacy of preservice elementary science teachers. His current research program involves physics education, ethnoastronomy, chasing the aurora borealis around the world with teachers and students, science teacher professional development, and Aurorasaurus (a citizen science project out of NASA). Richard served as the Acting Department Head for CTL from January 2017 to June 2018.

Description of talk:

The night sky provides an ethereal backdrop of awe and wonder that unites people in ways we are only now coming to explore. This talk told a story of how astronomy can be the nexus for connecting people across cultures and religions in an effort to help create a better world.

My notes from the lecture (if they don’t make sense then it is entirely my fault)

This is a story about empathy (a different use of physics)


An aurora (plural: auroras or aurorae), sometimes referred to as polar lights, northern lights (aurora borealis), southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic).

Auroras are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind. These disturbances are sometimes strong enough to alter the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma. These particles, mainly electrons and protons, precipitate into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere).

The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying colour and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes.

Canadians see the Northern Lights often and it is a talking point in Winnipeg.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is home to the nation’s largest organization of scientists, engineers and technologists who build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study Earth, the sun, our solar system and the universe.

The Aurorasaurus team is led by Liz MacDonald, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

The Churchill Rocket Research Range is a former rocket launch site located 23 kilometres outside Churchill, Manitoba. The facility was used by Canada and the United States beginning in 1954 for sub-orbital launches of sounding rockets to study the upper atmosphere. The site was scientifically beneficial due to lying in the centre of a zone containing high aurora activity. Over 3,500 sub-orbital flights were launched from the site.

Native Canadians do not use the name “Northern Lights”.

Canada has not been kind to the indigenous people. They are working towards truth and reconciliation.

25 native Canadian elders were asked what they thought the Northern Lights are. One of them replied “my ancestors guiding us home”.

Some native Canadians consider the Northern Lights to be animal spirits

Chasing aurora


Cresting wave forms (curl and wave). That’s the aurora seen from 834 km up by the Suomi-NPP satellite. An intense display lit up the sky across northern Canada on Dec. 22 2016 just hours after the winter solstice, when a mass of energetic particles from the sun smashed into Earth’s magnetic field and funnelled down to the atmosphere below.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen / Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership with labels by Robert King (AstroBob)

As in the UK the children are educated in “years” although the final year in Canada is 12 not 13. Canadian teachers were asked how much astronomy they teach in “year/grade 9”. The answer was “not much”. Ironically one of the reasons given was “we don’t have school at night”. Other reasons were the usual “too much in the curriculum” and “I am not confident teaching the subject”.


This mural has a dual purpose, both in memoriam of a young girl who drowned off the coast of Churchill, and the following statement from the artist: “Spirit in the water, spirit in the sky, spirit on the earth, all are connected. My piece is about ancestral legacy, what was passed on to us and what we will leave for our children’s children. She may be the Creator or Sedna the Inuit goddess of the sea. She may be Jessie Tootoo, a healer or grandmother.

Whoever she is, from her open hands the Aurora is unleashed, the ethereal cosmic voice of the ancestors speaking to us. The beluga swims through the aurora, a spirit guide legacy reminding us of what is truly valuable and worthy.”

The Northern Lights travel 11,265,408 kph

An inuksuk (plural inuksuit) (sometimes inukshuk in English) is a manmade stone landmark or cairn built for use by the Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. These structures are found in northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska (United States). This combined region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.


These sorts of structures are actually found all over the world. There is one in Northern Israel near the border with Lebanon.

The indigenous people of Canada have different names for the constellations.


These are the constellations of the Ojibway, Cree, Blackfoot, and other First Nations of what is now known as Canada.


The most common legend explaining the origin of the stars of the Big Dipper is the celestial bear hunt.

The constellation of Ursa Major (Latin: Greater Bear) has been seen as a bear, a wagon, or a ladle. The “bear” tradition is Greek, but apparently the name “bear” has parallels in Siberian or North American traditions.

In Ireland and the United Kingdom, this pattern is known as the Plough.

In German, Romanian and most Slavic languages it is known as the “Great Wagon”.

In the Lithuanian language, the stars of Ursa Major are known as Stars of the Riding Hall’s Wheels.

In traditional Chinese astronomy, which continues to be used throughout East Asia (e.g., in astrology), these stars are generally considered to compose the Right Wall of the Purple Forbidden Enclosure which surrounds the Northern Celestial Pole, although numerous other groupings and names have been made over the centuries.

In South Korea, the constellation is referred to as “the seven stars of the north”. In the related myth, a widow with seven sons found comfort with a widower, but to get to his house required crossing a stream. The seven sons, sympathetic to their mother, placed stepping stones in the river. Their mother, not knowing who put the stones in place, blessed them and, when they died, they became the constellation.

In Malay, it is known as the “Boat Constellation”

In Burmese, these stars are a general term for a crustacean.

In Hindu astronomy, it is referred to as the “Collection of Seven Great Sages” as each star is named after a mythical Hindu sage.

An Arabian story has the four stars of the Plough’s bowl as a coffin, with the three stars in the handle as mourners, following it.

Ernest William Hawkes (July 19, 1883 – March 13, 1957) was an American anthropologist best known for his work studying the indigenous peoples of Alaska and northern Canada. He studied at Dakota Wesleyan University (1909) and Pennsylvania University (1913, 1915).

His 1916 The Labrador Eskimo was based on his experiences in summer 1914 with the Geological Survey of Canada in the Hudson Bay area.

According to one Inuit legend, one who whistles at the Northern Lights risks calling down spirits from the aurora. A poem entitled Labrador in Winter, written by Canadian poet Kate Tuthill, colourfully illustrates this belief thus:

The Inuits say don’t whistle

When the Northern Lights are high,

Lest they swoop to earth and carry you

Up to the luminescent sky.

Not all Canadian aboriginal legends regarding whistling at night involve evil spirits. According to one First Nations tradition that decries it, this practice attracts the “Stick Indians”- frightening wildmen of Interior and Coast Salish tradition, which are either hairy Sasquatch-like giants, gaunt cannibalistic Indians, or forest-dwelling dwarves, depending on the tribal affiliation of the storyteller. Most Salish tribes maintain that the Stick Indians communicate using whistles alternating from low to high. According to the Okanagan (a.k.a. Syilx), an Interior Salish people of South-Central British Columbia, whistling at night, especially in the backcountry or on outskirts of civilization, is likely to attract the unwanted attention of a Stick Indian.

The Dene tribes of Northern Canada have a similar wildman tradition, and according to many missionaries and fur traders who spent time among these people in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, they were terrified of nocturnal whistling. In the words of Hudson’s Bay Company trader B.R. Ross in his 1879 report entitled Notes on the Tinneh [Dene] or Chipewyan Indians of British and Russian America:

“A strange footprint, or any unusual sound in the forest, is quite sufficient to cause great excitement in the camp. At Fort Resolution I have on several occasions caused all the natives encamped around to flock for protection into the fort during the night simply by whistling, hidden in the bushes…”

Another First Nation with a taboo against night whistling is the Kootenay tribe of southeastern British Columbia. According to a Kootenay woman who was interviewed on December 11, 1997:

“Even today you will hear people that are my mother’s age from the reserve say ‘you don’t whistle at night.’ Okay, that’s taboo. They don’t tell you why lots of times. But it’s: ‘don’t whistle at night- the bad spirits will get you- something will get you.’ But if you take that back not so many generations- if you were out in the dark and your enemy’s around, if you’re whistling, they know you’re there. And there you go! It was designed as stories to tell children so that they could comprehend. Okay, don’t whistle because something bad will happen to me. But the parent’s didn’t go on to say: ‘otherwise the Blackfeet are going to get you in the middle of the night’ or something. ‘They’re going to know where you are and get you.’ It’s kind of a way of telling a fairy story but with a practical purpose of protecting your children.”

Fairy tale or not, the superstition surrounding nocturnal whistling plays an important role in several different folk traditions across Canada, adding a few more ethnocultural groups to that list of peoples from all over the world who warn: “don’t whistle at night!”

Morgan Dumkee, Raised in the Northwest Territories of Canada: “When I was a young child, I was told the Inuit legend of the Northern Lights, and why you shouldn’t whistle for them.

The lights are, according to the Inuit, the spirits of their dead. To amuse themselves, they play a game similar to soccer. However, they don’t play with a ball, but with a walrus head.

For those who don’t know, a walrus is a gigantic seal with tusks several feet long. Polar bears are afraid to hunt them, so you know those tusks are serious.

Whistling calls the lights in closer, but the closer they come, the greater your chances of being hit by the walrus’s tusks. If you whistle too much, and the lights come too close, you can chase them away by rubbing your fingernails on each other, and the sound will warn them away.

It should be noted that the only Native group in the North who fears the Aurora is the Barrow Point group from Alaska. Everyone else, the Gwitchin, the Inuit, the Inuk, believes that even if the spirits are dangerous, they aren’t malevolent.”

Polaris, designated α Ursae Minoris (Latinized to Alpha Ursae Minoris, abbreviated Alpha UMi, α UMi), commonly the North Star or Pole Star, is the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor. It is very close to the north celestial pole, making it the current northern pole star.

Polaris, is a star in the tip of the tail of the Little Bear. Its name comes to us from Latin Stella Polaris, meaning “Pole Star”.

Ancient Greek navigators of old called Polaris “the Dog’s Tail”.

The Cree call Polaris the “Standing star”, the First Nations call it the “going home star” (going west – dying)

Ursa Minor (Latin: “Lesser Bear”, contrasting with Ursa Major), also known as the Little Bear, is a constellation in the Northern Sky.

In The Dog Star story, Atima Atchakosuk, Polaris is called Mahkan Atchakos, the wolf star. Long ago the people had no dogs to protect them. Their relatives the wolf, coyote, and fox saw this. The wolves held a council and decided that two of them would go to live with the people, as did the coyote’s and foxes’ councils. Two pups from each council were also sent to all the four directions of humankind. They adapted and were domesticated. From these four came all the dogs in the world, and now they guard our homes and camps. To honour this sacrifice by the natootim-uk (our relatives) the Creator placed a reminder in the heavens. Polaris anchors the leash as the dogs run around their sky camp. The three stars of the little dipper handle represent the wolf (Polaris), coyote, and fox. The four bowl stars represent the pups sent to the four directions of humankind.


The dogs were sent to protect us from the big bear.

At a conference Professor Professor Hechter, who is Jewish, became friends with an Arab Palestinian, Nayif Awad. This resulted in a paper

Living Ethnoastronomy: Discovering the Connectedness of the Human Spirit Beneath the Night Sky

Despite the fact that the constellations seem to be based on Greek/Roman myths the Arabs made important contributions too


Betelgeuse (pronounced beetle-jooz or sometimes bet-el-juice) is an odd name—but then most of the common star names sound strange to the western ear. The reason is that most of them are of Arabic origin: Aldebaran (“The Follower”), Algol (“The Ghoul”), Arrakis (“The Dancer”), Deneb (“Tail”), Fomalhaut (“The Fish’s Mouth”), Rigel (“Foot”), Thuban (“Snake”), Vega (“Plunging [Eagle]”).… The list goes on.


The odd name of Betelgeuse, in the constellation Orion, comes from an Arabic original whose first letter was inadvertantly changed by a 13th-century astronomer. Second brightest in Orion, the star that was originally named in Arabic yad al-jawza’ appears (top) at the upper left, and above, in an antique-style rendition, at the end of the sleeve of the hunter’s tunic.


Most of the Arabic star names we know today can be traced back to the treatises of al-Sufi, a Persian astronomer of the 10th century who wrote in Arabic. His Book of Constellations of the Fixed Stars built on Ptolemy’s second-century Almagest. This plate is a 15th-century interpretation of al-Sufi’s constellations of Centaurus and Leo.

Orion is most commonly referred to as “The Hunter” due to its corresponding Greek mythological tale.

In Yokut Native American folklore, the three bright stars of Orion’s belt were three footprints of the god of the flea people.

In Navajo history, Orion was a marker in the sky for when to plant their crops. They called Orion, the First Slim One or the First Slender One.

In the case of Orion, Japanese have seen few if any individual gods or heroes or even mythological creatures within the constellation as a whole but rather icons of common knowledge or use and symbols of specific cultural values and attributes, such as a drum.


Ancient Egyptians are believed to have called Orion, Osiris, although this is disputed


Osiris is the god of fertility, alcohol, agriculture, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, life, and vegetation in ancient Egyptian religion. He was classically depicted as a green-skinned deity with a pharaoh’s beard, partially mummy-wrapped at the legs, wearing a distinctive atef crown, and holding a symbolic crook and flail.

The Aramaic and Syriac names of Orion havebeen connected with the ancient Oriental tradition that Nimrod, who is called in the Bible a hero and mighty hunter, was fettered by God for his obstinacy in building the tower of Babel, and was set in the sky (Winer, “B. R.” ii. 157).

The First Nations tribe call Orion “The Wintermaker”

Each culture/nation interprets the night sky differently.

In Iceland the Vikings called the Northern Lights a messenger system

The Northern Lights have inspired some of the most dramatic tales in Norse mythology. The Vikings celebrated the lights, believing they were earthly manifestations of their gods. Other Norse people feared them, telling stories of the dangers they posed and developing superstitions to protect themselves. These Norse myths and legends come from the Nordic countries in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic.

The Vikings never wrote books, but their descendants produced thousands of manuscripts during the middle-ages. However, within this corpus, only one sure mention of Northern Lights exists: “The King’s Mirror”, written around 1250.

Other sources, this time of mythological nature do, however mention an intriguingly similar phenomenon.

The Bridge of the Gods, Bivröst (“Moving Way” in Old Norse) is mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, written around 1220 and in the Poetic Edda which is probably much older.

Bivröst is said to be covered with flames and having three colours.

Sources describe an unstable fire-red bridge between heaven and earth, sometimes taking other colours and sometimes being crossed by warriors.

The last elements identifying Auroras in the Medieval Norse sources are the colour red and fire.

When the aurora appears further south in Europe, the lights often take on a deep, reddish hue. It would explain why in continental Europe, many considered the dancing, blood red streaks of the Aurora to be an evil omen of bloodshed. When the lights appeared as an ominous, crimson presence in the skies above Europe, they were often seen as a portent of war or other dangers.

Children are excited by space and it would be brilliant if they could be encouraged to make up their own stories.

Share your story!

Help people to find their story; to find their identity and place in the global community; help get a sense of their place in the Universe.

Unfortunately people are racist (an unfortunately learned behaviour)

Hate is learnt

This talk wasn’t really just about physics

Some view culture and religion as unscientific, but it is

Canadian museum for human rights

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is a Canadian Crown Corporation and national museum located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, adjacent to The Forks. The purpose of the museum is to “explore the subject of human rights with a special but not exclusive reference to Canada, to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue.” It held its opening ceremonies on 19 September 2014.

Aboriginal issues are addressed in each gallery, but are prominent in the “Canadian Journeys Gallery” and the “Indigenous Perspectives Gallery.

Physics can make the world clearer. Through astronomy, culture and education we can change things. The sky can bring us together. Science is a common language – it unifies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s