On an overcast Saturday afternoon in Davie, about 50 kids and parents emerge from Buehler Planetarium, where they've just watched a show called The Little Star That Could. In the animated program, a star searches the galaxy for a family of planets and along the way teaches kids the basics of astronomy -- simple stuff like how day and night occur as a result of the Earth's rotation. But the next feature, The Cowboy Astronomer, has an audience of only two. Maybe the word cowboy is keeping the grownups away, and maybe the word astronomer sounds too serious for parents looking for kids' fare.
Whatever the reason, the 40-minute show, which offers advanced insights into the stars and planets from the viewpoint of a cattle wrangler on an open range, is geared toward people of all ages. Cowboy poet Baxter Black -- who reads his work on National Public Radio -- provides the voice-over, which combines astronomy with entertaining star lore and legend, all told in his twangy voice. While lines from the introduction like "You can observe a lot just by watchin'" can get a little corny, they're worth sitting through.
Just as cheesy is the cartoonish scenery projected onto the lower edges of the planetarium dome depicting the prairie and mountains beneath the nighttime sky. But without light pollution to dull the view, as it does in cities, thousands of stars are visible in the "sky," and that's what counts as Black talks about how to find the North Star.
On his first cattle drive, as Black tells it, an old-timer named Henry showed him how to find the North Star, also known as Polaris. What you do, he said, is find the two end stars at the bottom of the Big Dipper, then trace a line between them and extend the line southwest until you reach the brightest star in the sky.
The reason Polaris is so important to cowboys is that it enables them to get their bearings on the open range, Black explains. And like the sun, he says, stars rise and set. In fact, on that first night on the range, Henry told Black to take the first watch while they camped out with their cattle and to wake him when Polaris set on the horizon.
The only problem is that the North Star serves as a guide because, while other stars rise and set, it remains stationary.
"You know, I watched that star for the longest time," Black says, incredulously. "In fact I watched it all night, while I listened to ol' Henry just snorin' away! That blasted thing never did set! I'd been had. Royally."
-- John Ferri
The Cowboy Astronomer will be shown Friday, May 28, at 7 p.m., Saturday, May 29, at 3 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, May 30, at 3 p.m. Tickets cost $4 and $5. Buehler Planetarium is located at 3501 SW Davie Rd., Davie. Call 954-475-6680.
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