by Dan Donnelly
Waterloo, ON – A team of scientists from the University of Waterloo have used advanced astronomical modelling to determine the precise moment at which the English poet Jane Taylor observed a little star whose twinkling would go on to delight generations of young children. “The conclusive dating of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ is a prime example of how the scientific community can make important and meaningful contributions to the humanistic disciplines,” said Dr. Astrid Peraspera, Associate Professor of Astronomy and lead author of the team’s recent publication in Buzzfeed Science.
“Finding the right data to plug into our software was trickier than we expected,” Peraspera said in an interview at her lab, which recently received $2 million from a government initiative to promote STEM in the humanities. “We already knew Taylor observed the star in 1806 because the poem was published that year, but after nothing else turned up on Wikipedia it quickly became clear that we’d have to somehow get the rest of the astronomical data out of the text itself.”
For this critical task Peraspera recruited her PhD student Ryan Tran, whose modest background in the humanities, she said, “really saved us the trouble of having to talk to an actual literary historian.” Tran, whose insightful analysis of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in Grade 11 English earned him “a solid B+,” was more than happy to take a break from months of reducing spectroscopic data to exercise his prodigious skills in textual hermeneutics.
“The words ‘like a diamond in the sky’ almost certainly refer to the star Alphecca, which the brightest star in the Northern Crown,” Tran said in a phone interview from Vancouver, where he was invited to give a TED talk about the project. The time of Taylor’s observation and the position of the star in the sky were also recorded in the poem, he went on to explain, noting that that the words “up above the world so high” and “when the blazing sun is gone” could only mean that Taylor observed the star rising to its highest position in the sky—what astronomers call its apex—in the final moments of nautical twilight.
“The excitement in the room was palpable,” Peraspera said, recalling the atmosphere in the lab as the calculations were run by the software. “We were all holding our breath, wondering if the dozens of minutes we spent on this project would pay off, or if we’d have to give up and go back to working on the kind of things we actually know something about.”
But suspense quickly turned to jubilation as a date and time finally appeared on the screen, definitively revealing the exact moment at which the poet’s upturned gaze met the twinkling light of a distant sun: June 11, 1806 at 11:16pm and 29.24 seconds. “Now that’s accuracy,” Peraspera said with a grin. “The guys who did that Sappho poem couldn’t even get down to a month. No wonder they had to retract it.”