Names of stars

Aldebaran is the α star, i.e. the brightest, in the constellation of Taurus. It is a fine sight through binoculars, red and ‘glowing like a jewel of fire’ (see below).

The boy who was asked the origin of its name at interview, and got it right, had expressed an interest in astronomy on his personal statement: and he knew that Aldebaran, along with so many other stars, was given its name by Arab astronomers in the Middle Ages, in that flowering of Muslim science and culture whose passing has recently been regretted by Professor Dawkins. It was those astronomers who translated the work of Ptolemy into Arabic, and named it the Almagest.

Students need to be aware of the names and words in English that come from the Arabic of that period, the most obvious being albatross, alcohol, algebra, alkali, and of course the Alhambra. And then there is the word zero, for which the Muslim scholars gave us not just the word, but the concept itself, until then unknown to mathematicians.

A question recently arose about a passage in Tolkien:
‘Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire. Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt. The Elves all burst into song.’

The description corresponds to the rising of three constellations: first the Pleiades (the Netted Stars), and then Taurus with its brightest star Aldebaran (Borgil), then Orion (Menelvagor). The meanings of these Elvish names are perhaps determinable by experts in those tongues.

Orion, named by the early Greeks, is perhaps the most spectacular constellation in the Northern hemisphere, striding from left to right with his shining belt, his sword hanging from it, and his arm uplifted to cast a spear, with his dogs at heel on the left— Canis Major with its brilliant star Sirius, and further behind, Canis Minor.

The two brightest stars in Orion have Arabic names: at the top, Betelgeuse (orange-red) and at the bottom, Rigel (pure white). But behind Orion, Sirius, the Dog Star, is one of the few individual stars to have been named by the Greeks. It is glittering white, and the brightest star in the Northern sky.


Surprising interview questions

When our students go to university interviews, they are warned about ‘the doorknob question’— the one that is asked when they think most of the interview is over.  Here is a selection of such questions from recent years:

  • How would you define the word sleep?
  • Did the Vikings go into the Black Sea?
  • What was the agenda of Lars Porsenna?
  • Did Shakespeare use soap?
  • Please define the word fire.
  • What prompted the peasants to revolt?
  • How would you distinguish power from authority?
  • Please point out Byzantium on this map.
  • Did Jane Austen wear a bra?
  • What does the word planet originally mean?
  • What was the capital city of England before London?
  • How does a historian differ from a journalist?
  • Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau an atheist?
  • Who gave the star Aldebaran its name?
  • What does the name Australia mean?
  • Please multiply thirteen by seventeen.
  • ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Do you agree?

The last one was at the very end of an interview: the candidate was applying to read medicine.