Astronomy and flags

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Friday, April 18, 2014

Flags of the Night Sky: When Astronomy Meets National Pride by André G. Bordeleau is a fascinating look at the intersection of astronomy and vexillology — the study of flags. Springer
An electronic version of a fascinating book just arrived via email. Flags of the Night Sky: When Astronomy Meets National Pride (Springer, 2014) is a 341-page history of why many flags around the world currently display astronomical themes.

The author, André G. Bordeleau, writes in his introduction: “Astronomy studies the night sky and all that it contains. Vexillology is the study of flags, their colors, symbols, and meaning. To most people, the two usually don’t meet. In this book, you will discover that the two are actually far more intertwined than most people realize.”

Wow, he’s not kidding!

Here’s a brief example: In the section “Brazilian States and Their Corresponding Stars,” the author compares the current flag of Brazil to a star atlas because it features nine different constellations and 27 stars. That’s pretty cool, but did you know that each star on the flag represents a specific Brazilian state? Well, all but Sigma (s) Octantis (the closest visible star to the South Celestial Pole), which represents the capital or Federal District. And here’s some more trivia: At magnitude 5.42, Sigma Octantis is the dimmest star displayed on any national flag.

Bordeleau began thinking about this subject while discussing the Australian flag with a colleague. He noted that it was not the only flag bearing the Southern Cross, and he began wondering how many more flags bore that constellation. Then he discovered the flag of Brazil, which bears an actual sky chart. He started digging and soon had enough material for an article. A couple of years later, this book was born 

Throughout the work, Bordeleau presents each flag, a brief history, and its symbols. It’s both a great read (that you can ping-pong through; you don’t have to start at page 1) and a high-quality reference.

“I have tried to catalogue every current national flag that has a link — no matter how tenuous — to astronomy and its objects,” Bordeleau said. In doing so, he has provided hours of fun and informative reading. Well done, sir. I heartily recommend Flags of the Night Sky: When Astronomy Meets National Pride.

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