1644: Stargazing

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Some of you may be thinking, 'But wait, isn't the brightest star in our sky the Sun?' I think that's a great question and you should totally ask it. On the infinite tree of possible conversations spread out before us, I think that's definitely the most promising branch.
Title text: Some of you may be thinking, 'But wait, isn't the brightest star in our sky the Sun?' I think that's a great question and you should totally ask it. On the infinite tree of possible conversations spread out before us, I think that's definitely the most promising branch.


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: There may be another joke here. What about the branches in the title text. Is there some well known reference to such a tree. Sound like something with parallel universes and infinite possibilities?
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.
Megan is the host for a group of people who attend an evenings stargazing class. She is supposed to be a doctor (or whatever) in astronomy, but it is already clear in the first panel (from her last comment) that she is only acting, and she is clearly not very knowledgeable about astronomy, although she is enthusiastically interested in the objects that can bee seen in the night sky, i.e. out in space.

Megan thus certainly isn't an astronomer, and seems to only know superficial stuff about the subject, putting the stated facts into strange/peculiar context, as the star in charge or too big to think about, making it feel more popular than scientific. However, all of her statements are actually scientifically correct! (If you disagree read the explanation of the title text). Below there is a list and explanations of Megan's observations.

But her being correct is not enough for her audience, who feel they have been led to believe she is an astronomer, and wish to be guided by a real doctor (PhD) in astronomy. Megan points out that the word astronomer is just that, something to look up in a boring dictionary, and when they continue she tries to avoid this by shouting Space to get their focus back on the wonders of the universe, instead of focusing on her educational level. Why care who tells you about interesting stuff in the universe? (See 1053: Ten Thousand).

Because it turns out that Megan has been excited about telling about interesting objects in space before, but often ends up in a situation where it becomes clear to other people that she may not be an astronomer, although she behaves like she might be (and clearly seems to knows a lot about space). So she had often been asked is she was sure if she as an astronomer. In the end she claims that she had to look up the definition of "astronomer" in a dictionary, (or more likely she pretends that she had to) commenting on how boring a book that was. Since you are not meant to read a dictionary, but only look up individual words this would suggests that Megan never used one of these before, but again more likely she pretends to not know.

The title text mentions a typical comment (joke) that often comes up in discussions about which star is the brightest when seen from Earth. It is almost always clear from the context that the subject are stars in the night sky. But the joker is of course right as technically Sirius is not the brightest star in our sky, since the Sun is also a star. Megan/Randall is being sarcastic here, pointing out that being pedantic about this is a waste of everyone's time, considering all the other things they could talk about. He references the infinite tree of possible conversations they could have had, and "applauds" the joker for choosing this promising branch, which will lead nowhere. Alternatively, he might not be sarcastic, but applauding the joker for lateral thinking.

The comic may be a reference to BBC's {{w|Stargazing Live}, which has Brian Cox as one of the main presenters. His hair is long enough that he might be drawn in xkcd style so he would look like Megan. He does have a PhD, not in astronomy, however, but in high-energy particle physics, which could explain the doctor or whatever comment. The show has been airing since 2011, and the newest season aired during January 2016 just a month before this comics release. Brian Cox has also been the presenter of several other science programs, especially the Wonders of... series (as in Wonders of the Solar System, Universe and Life).

It may also be a reference to Jack Horkheimer's PBS shows "Star Hustler" and "Star Gazers." Horkheimer, like Megan, had no PhD in astronomy, only getting into it when he started volunteering at the Miami Museum of Science's planetarium. He ended up writing shows for the planetarium and the PBS series developed from there. Like Megan, he rarely covered facts about the night sky that couldn't be found in any basic reference (possibly because the show was aimed at children and non-astronomy buffs), although he did get more in-depth about current astronomical events such as Comet Hale–Bopp.

See also 1371: Brightness and 1342: Ancient Stars.

Megan's observations

Here is a list of Megan's observations:

  • Most visible stars are still very faint, and just becomes background to the bright stars that form the named constellations.
    • Megan correctly states that they are just dots. (This is also true for the bright stars, but at least they are clearly distinguishable).
  • Sirius is the brightest star in our night sky. But it is not the brightest object in the night sky, as several of the planets, especially Venus and Jupiter, and of course the Moon are much brighter. It is also far from being one of the most luminous star in the Milky Way, but its proximity to Earth makes it the brightest in the night sky. There are twenty visible stars that are more luminous than Sirius, none of which come even close to being in the top 100 of the most luminous stars observed today.
    • Megan thus names Sirius as the star in charge since it outshines all the others as seen from the Earth.
  • Sirius is actually a star system consisting of two stars as it is a binary star system. But where Sirius A is twice the size of the Sun and much brighter, then Sirius B is now just a dim white dwarf, the remains from a much larger start that became a red giant before shedding its outer layers and collapsing into its current state around 120 million years ago. So now Sirius A completely outshines Sirius B, which actually is now a dead star with no further fusion going on inside its core.
    • This is construed by Megan as it is barely even trying, as it is now only radiating away the rest of the heat from the now exposed core.
  • Andromeda is a spiral galaxy, like the Milky Way, and it is the largest galaxy in the Local Group where our own galaxy the Milky Way is the second largest. It is one of a few visible objects that are located outside the Milky Way. It is "only" 2.5 million light-years from the Sun and it is heading our way (or vice versa), and will collide with the Milky way in about 4 billion years (before the Sun goes into its red giant phase). Being 220,000 light years across consisting and of a trillion stars, it is somewhere between 1.2-2.2 times wider than the Milky Way and has 2.5-10 times as many stars. (The local group was also mentioned two comics ago, in 1642: Gravitational Waves, together with the much less well known third largest galaxy in the group the Triangulum Galaxy).
    • It is therefore true when Megan says that it is too big to try to understand, and thinking about it will make your head spin, so she suggests we do not think about it.
  • Betelgeuse is a clearly visible (9th brightest) red supergiant variable star located in the constellation of Orion. It is one of the largest and most luminous observable stars (12th) and one of the few where it is clear that the light is not white. Most people can see that it is slightly red, whereas most other stars are so faint that they look white despite having different colors (when seeing Orion's two brightest stars, to remember which is which between Rigel and Betelgeuse, its diagonal opposite, just remember: Rigel is "R" like blue, and Betelgeuse is "B" like red). It is expected that Betelgeuse, being at a late stage of its evolution, will go supernova within the next million years as a type II supernova. The exact time when it will become a Supernova is so uncertain that it could just as likely happen tomorrow as in a million years. When it happens it will not be dangerous to anyone on Earth, but it will likely be visible even during the day, as it may even become as bright as the full Moon.
    • When it does go nova, it will be a fantastic spectacle for everyone, but especially for anyone who likes the good stuff in space like Megan, who cannot wait for the star to explode. Clearly she hopes it will be in her lifetime, and, although this is unlikely, there is a small chance that it might just happen.
  • A meteor (also known as shooting star), is debris from space that rains down on Earth, and burns up in the atmosphere. This happens all the time, but you need to be either lucky, patient, or know the right time for one of the meteor showers to see one. Often they are visible for so short a time period, that it is difficult to share the experience with anyone, as it will be gone by the time they turn their head to look where you are pointing.
    • Megan becomes very excited when she spots such a meteor, especially because it is likely that her audience got to share the experience with her, as they were already looking in the same direction as she. But still she asks if they saw it, because it is so short lived.
  • Outer space is the void that exists between celestial bodies, including the Earth. There is by definition nothing there but vacuum, and the interesting part of space is thus not the space but the astronomical objects found out there.
    • Megan says that space is cool, which is a very un-astronomical comment, as explained above. Also her excitement for a simple shooting star is cause for the suspicion that is raised after her space comment.


[A thin panel where Megan, holding her hands up, is drawn in white on a black background. Behind her is an audience drawn in faint gray lines consisting of Hairy (to the left) and two Cueball-like guys and Ponytail (seen in a rare full face position) to the right of Megan. One of the Cueball-like guys is partly hidden behind Megan.]
Megan: Welcome to stargazing, with your host, me.
Megan: I'm a doctor or whatever.
[Same scene as before but in a broader panel, and Megan is now holding only one hand up with a finger pointing up. The audience is the same four people, but now Hairy has moved further to the left in the panel to make room for a Megan-like girl also to the left of Megan.]
Megan: I'm not gonna waste your time on the shitty stars.
Megan: Just the good stuff.
Megan: Honestly half of 'em just look like dots.
[A frame-less drawing with a zoom out showing the group of six people in black silhouette on a white background. Part of the ground beneath them is shown as a black pool. Megan is pointing up with one hand. The people have been rearranged, so left of Megan is now a Cueball-like guy and the Megan-like girl, and to the right is the other Cueball-like guy, then Ponytail (seen from the side as usual) and Hairy. All are looking up following Megan's directions.]
Megan: This is Sirius. It's the brightest star in our sky so it's in charge.
Megan: It's really two stars but one of them is barely even trying.
Megan: That's Andromeda, it's too big to think about, so let's not.
[Zoom in of Megan's upper body, again drawn in white on a black background. She is looking right gesturing with one arm raised, and the other still pointing up with a finger stretched out. Her audience is no longer shown.]
Megan: That red stars is Betelgeuse. It's gonna explode someday.
Megan: Can't happen soon enough, as far as I'm concerned. I-
Megan: Holy shit did you see that meteor!?!
Megan: Space is awesome!
[Same scene as the previous panel, but Megan has turned towards left looking at someone in the audience (not shown) who speaks off-screen. She has taken both her hands down for the first time.]
Off-screen voice: Are you sure you're an astronomer?
Megan: People keep asking that, so I finally tried to look that word up in a dictionary, and wow is that book ever boring. No thank you.
Off-screen voice: But-
Megan: Space!

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?.. is this Brian Cox??? 06:07, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

Yes I think it is --Kynde (talk) 14:00, 22 February 2016 (UTC)

My first thought was that it was a pisstake of Brian Cox, except I wasn't sure if they had Stargazing Live in America. 08:33, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

Brian Cox seems like a nice guy and I applaud his enthusiasm, but if you want to see a truly awesome science broadcaster look for a set of broadcasts from the 70s/80s by James Burke titled "The Day the Universe Changed", Mr. Cox's programmes seem to be as much about how many airmiles the production team can accumulate as they are about the science. 09:10, 17 February 2016 (UTC)
The airmiles comment above applies to Cox's "Wonders Of The Universe" series, certainly, but my first thought was either that Randall knew of the BBC's semi-regular programme-cluster "Stargazing Live", here in the UK, that Cox co-presents - perhaps via BBC America? - or else there's an equivalent US version (precursor or postcursor) of the same name that perhaps has a celebrity-based core team.
(Brian's primary co-host in the programme is an Irish comedian, but one with a accredited science background who knows what they're talking about. They also have 'guest celebrities' for internal and external segments (from just outside the studio, under the night sky, to a pieces filmed/livecast at some space-relevant location, usually featured across all episodes of that season as a theme so not so much 'gratuitous globe-trotting) but they are all interested in space-stuff, and many also have an actual background expertise in physics/astronomy even if that's not what they're publicly known for.)
Quickly looking around, I can't see any obvious astronomy programmes(/programs!) in the US that aren't similarly expert-led, but that's possibly because any that are don't feature as 'proper' programmes on any of the lists I've checked. 14:25, 17 February 2016 (UTC)
The title text does imply it is in reference to Brian Cox. He is well known for his very philosophical comments referencing physics in that way. 20:05, 17 February 2016 (UTC)
Hmmm... intentional reference to The Infinite Monkey Cage, with infinite choices of branches, then? 12:46, 18 February 2016 (UTC)
After the transcript came out two comics later (as now explained in the new trivia section) it is clear that it is not Megan but a male TV host, and thus he almost certainly represents Brian Cox who looks like this (his hair would look just like Megan's in xkcd) and this fits with his way of explaining things. I have changed the entire explanation from Megan and her she, to the host and him he etc. May have overlooked some parts. (Note that Megan is still in the comic in the background of panel 2). Also the fact that there where new episodes of Stargazing Live last month supports this. --Kynde (talk) 14:00, 22 February 2016 (UTC)

I also thought this might be poking fun at the "Celebrity" presenters of TV astronomy programs. 13:16, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

I believe the title text may be referring to the fact that several people think that the sun is the brightest star simply because it's the closest to us, completely disregarding absolute magnitude? I'd change the explanation if I knew how. -- 06:39, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

The original statement in the comic is about which star is the brightest *in our sky*, i.e. most visible radiation per square meter hitting Earth, not the star with the most total radiation. You can change the explanation just by hitting the little edit button to the top right of the "Explanation" section. 06:57, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

I still don't get the main comic, unless its just situational comedy of someone acting like they know what they are talking about, when really they don't even know the meaning of the word "astronomer". 07:01, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

I put my best understanding of the comic in the explanation - I'm not sure I really get it, but I figured it was better than nothing. 07:14, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

This is exactly how I feel about looking at stars and hard core astronomy. I look for the brightest stars, and would like to know something about them, but just the basic facts. I have had a course on astronomy and it was boring to do the math for star formation and cosmology. I learnt that way that I was only interested in the results and conclusions, not in trying to calculate it my self, or counting all the other smaller stars to gain the data needed. I really like Megan here ;-) Space is awesome, astronomy is boring :-) --Kynde (talk) 09:08, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

I am pretty sure the last line in the first panel used to read "I'm doctor of whatever", but now it's clearly "... doctor or whatever". Has Randall changed the comic? -- 13:06, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

I wrote the original transcript based on the comic on this site. This has since been corrected to or, which makes sense. But the image file for the comic has not been changed here on xkcd, so had it not been for your comment here, I would just have put it down to a typo on my behalf. I still think so, as I believed she said or whatever when I wrote about it in the explanation. But the "or" can look a little as "of". It is, however, not unheard of that Randall changes a comic if he spots a mistake after the first release. This has happened several times. --Kynde (talk) 14:50, 17 February 2016 (UTC)
He actually changed the comic, but it was in the third panel with "That's" to "This is Andromeda". This was noted by another user (below this comment which was posted later). I have noted the change in the trivia section. --Kynde (talk) 14:00, 22 February 2016 (UTC)

From now on I plan to present Sirius as the brightest star that can be seen at night, just to take the wind out of the jokers sails... Andyd273 (talk) 14:34, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

I wonder if the style of speaking is a reference to Donald Trump. 19:31, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

She'd reminding me an awful lot of Beret Guy here, kind of scattered and . Is it just me? -boB (talk) 20:42, 17 February 2016 (UTC)

It's not just you... and from that point of view the title text doesn't read like sarcasm to me. Perhaps more a reference to choosing branches of science to explore? Then again, at least one person thought it was sarcastic, and I don't feel strongly enough to change the explanation over it. 01:35, 18 February 2016 (UTC)
I'm sure it is sarcasm. I wrote it and deleted the first time someone wrote it was not. But at the moment it is back again. It is definitely Randall who thinks it would be a stupid joke. I will not delete it again, but will leave it to others to delete if they agree that this is a clear case of sarcasm, not a way of applauding someone for a brilliant joke! ;-) --Kynde (talk) 14:00, 22 February 2016 (UTC)

Not true there is nothing in interstellar space. Dust, vacuum, photons, even heat energy. 08:02, 18 February 2016 (UTC)

Could the final "Space!" be a reference to the ending of Portal 2? Condor70 (talk) 11:02, 18 February 2016 (UTC)

Maybe the title text is referring to that one multiverse theory where every possible outcome creates it's own timeline? i'm spacing out on it's name right now, but i think it's been mentioned a few times in previous comics.--Flamewolf (talk) 19:44, 18 February 2016 (UTC)

I have tried to make some explanation of the title text. Maybe someone can improve with a better explanation? --Kynde (talk) 14:00, 22 February 2016 (UTC)

Regarding the Incomplete reasoning: "There may be another joke here. What about the branches in the title text. Is there some well known reference to such a tree. Sound like something with parallel universes and infinite possibilities?"... I must disagree, there's no other joke here. The word "branch" here isn't referring to any tree, but rather the ongoing logical possibilities of a conversation. If you take a video game where you can chose what you say in a conversation (or the choose-your-own-comic xkcd that came out a while ago), and map out all the options, it would look like a "tree", selecting THIS option leads to a new set of options, each of which will lead to ITS own set of options. In the aforementioned comic, selecting "Let me refresh" in the first panel leads to a different set of options for the second panel than if you had selected something else for the first panel. You are now following the "Let me refresh" branch of the conversation. That's all "branch" means in the title, it's referring to the conversation which would result from this, which would "branch off" of such a declaration. - NiceGuy1198.41.235.215 06:22, 20 February 2016 (UTC) I finally signed up! This comment is mine. NiceGuy1 (talk) 08:29, 9 June 2017 (UTC)

I have tried to make some explanation of the title text. Maybe someone can improve with a better explanation? --Kynde (talk) 14:00, 22 February 2016 (UTC)

The text in the second panel has changed from 'That's andromeda' to 'This is andromeda'. Just an fyi. 19:26, 20 February 2016 (UTC)

Thanks for the heads-up! Davidy²²[talk] 02:27, 21 February 2016 (UTC)
Now the change has been noted in the trivia section --Kynde (talk) 14:00, 22 February 2016 (UTC)

The explanation says all the host's statements are scientifically correct, but in the observations section, there's no defense for "it's in charge," or "barely even trying" being scientifically correct. I'm removing that statement. 00:37, 25 February 2016 (UTC)

'Andromeda' actually is not the name of the galaxy (which is Messier 31, M31, or NGC 224), but of the constellation that contains it. It is large, but not huge. 20:30, 13 March 2016 (UTC)

Citation needed. Jkshapiro (talk) 01:37, 15 March 2016 (UTC)
The Andromeda Galaxy is named after the constellation is can be found in but it is also know as Messier 31, M31, or NGC 224. It is completely wrong on all levels to say it is not named Andromeda! --Kynde (talk) 13:06, 25 May 2016 (UTC)

This needs some major cleaning up. Lackadaisical (talk) 06:22, 9 May 2016 (UTC)

Major Edit Explanation

Like I said in my previous comment, this needed some major editing. The explanation was disorganized, obtrusive and did little to assist in any understanding of the comic. I condensed important, relevant information and removed unimportant speculations and fixed the general tone of the article. Every word of the comic does not need to be hashed and rehashed only information which is conducive to understanding the comic and the topic of the comic should be included. It is not necessary to include an entire summarized blurb from wikipedia to describe that stars appear small in the night sky or the entire history of the andromeda galaxy. If a visitor does not know that stars look small they are probably not old enough to be reading and if they are interested in andromeda they will follow the wiki link and read about it on their own time. Speculation should be reserved to the talk page and other sections, it should not be included in the comic explanation.Lackadaisical (talk) 16:42, 9 May 2016 (UTC)

Major "return to previous explanation" explanation
I completely disagree. Fine that you have made changes, but no need to remove the list. This is standard for explain xkcd that you should be able to find explanation for all items in the comic here. If it is specific like here there will either be a table or a section. If you are not interested in details on the hosts observations you just skip the section or the trivia. I have re-included the section. It is important for the explanation to explain why his observations is accurate/correct if not delivers in a scientifically sound language. --Kynde (talk) 13:06, 25 May 2016 (UTC)
I was editing for clarity and tone, perhaps I deleted too much but I think the explanation is much clearer now with both of our edits. Before the "hosts observations" was used to serve as the explanation of his observations rather than to supplement them, now there is a quick discussion of his observations and a detailed insight. More complete, clearer and much nicer. Thank you for your review. Lackadaisical (talk) 13:56, 25 May 2016 (UTC)

Is it even possible to view all of the things that the host mentions from a single point on Earth? Andromeda is in the southern hemisphere, while Sirius is at the north pole.

I'm not an expert astronomer or star gazer, so I don't know.

Edit: Oopsie. I seem to have deleted all the previous comments. Sorry.  :(

Edit 2: No, they came back! (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Well not that much expert ;-) If you look at the wiki for Andromeda (constellation) you will find that it is indeed in the northern part of the sky, as are Sirius and Betelgueze (in winter at least). I actually tried to spot Andromeda after this comic came out, but it was not really possible from my garden too close to a larger city (at least at the time of night I tried). But it is rather close to cassiopeia which is even closer to the northern star. So yes all of these three items would be clearly visible at the time of year the comic was releases in the area where the author lives i the US or from the UK where the program he spoofs is made. --Kynde (talk) 07:19, 26 May 2016 (UTC)