I thought it would be nice to go back in time for my birthday this year – get a glimpse of things as they were when I was born. Plan A was to invent a time machine, but I had a wedding to go to this weekend and one of the cats has a UTI, so I just didn’t get around to it. Instead, I went with Plan B – the stars.
Whenever we look at the stars, we travel in time, because the star we see is not the star of this present moment. Light may be the fastest thing in the universe (non-super-hero), but even it takes time to get from there to here. That ray of sunshine is SO eight minutes ago, and the moonlight is even more passé since it had to travel from the sun and then bounce.
Somewhere, up in the night sky, there is a light from 38 years in the past; an echo of the day I was born. Turns out, its name is Zeta Doradus – a yellow-white dwarf star a little bit brighter and hotter than our own sun. Sounds just like me.
Zeta Doradus looks like a single star, but really is a wide binary system. We can only see the primary star (Zeta Dor A) with our naked eye, but closer inspection with a telescope reveals Zeta Dor B, its dark partner, a mere .018 parsecs (22 light minutes) away. It’s similar to how I look like a fun, normal person until folks get closer and discover the quirky neurotic tendencies that make things a bit more complicated.
The Zeta Doradus we see today is an echo of the star that was at my birth, but it has been around much longer. It was first noticed and named by humans around 1600; specifically by Dutch humans, which is nice because 1600 is also roughly when my Dutch ancestors came over to the New World.
“Dorado” is the constellation where my birthday star lives. It is Spanish for “dolphinfish”, also known as “mahi-mahi”. Why those Dutch astronomers chose to name their new constellations in Spanish is beyond me, but since I am trying to teach myself Spanish this year I appreciate the happy coincidence.
In the night sky, the Dolphinfish is located just behind the Flying Fish, because apparently that’s what mahi-mahi hunt. Dorado is also referred to as the Goldfish (yummy) or the Swordfish (less yummy, more badass). Whatever the title, my Zeta star is located in the tail – which I like to think makes it a strong driving force.
Star gazing always puts me in a Romantic mood (and a little-r romantic mood if there’s a cute boy nearby), because of the way past, present, and future intersect in one moment. That light we see is an echo of the past. This moment is my present, but is also the future of the star in the sky. I cannot know the star’s present (Zeta Doradus could have exploded thirty years ago and we’d have no idea) any more than I can know my own future, but 38 years into my future is exactly when I will be able to see Zeta Dor’s present, which by then will be my past.
Looking at the stars too long can make a person dizzy, in more ways than one.
We do know that Zeta Doradus is/was a relatively young system – only .58 gigayears (but not looking a day over .5). It is/was young enough to still have a “debris disk” around it – the aftermath of its formation – and I’ll be damned if I’ve heard a more fitting way to describe the current state of my own life.
There are no planets yet discovered around Zeta Doradus, but if one existed at a habitable distance, it would have a roughly 420-day orbit. Which also means that if I lived on that planet, I would be only 33 (sweet).
As for the future/present – who knows? Astronomers predict Zeta Doradus will not be content to stay in one place its entire life (I can relate), and will likely leave Dorado for the constellation Pictor in about 4400 years. That’s French for “the painter”. From Dutch culture to Spanish fish to French art – that’s a life path I could live with.
My look into my birth year has been rewarding and enlightening, but there is one small problem I haven’t mentioned: I can’t actually see Zeta Doradus from North America. The Dolphinfish is a southern constellation visible from 20 degrees latitude on down. I could see it from southern Mexico, or Puerto Rico, or India, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands or Australia. Not to mention Antarctica, where the penguins are watching it right now.
This sounds to me like the most important lesson I could learn from my birth star: it’s time to take a vacation, pronto! New Zealand, here I come; save some mahi-mahi for me.