Real stars don’t get much mainstream press attention. If you do a snap survey along any high street and ask people to name their favourite stars, you would get lists of ‘Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus…’. The chance of finding someone who will spontaneously rattle off names like Betelgeuse, Sirius, Rigel, Arcturus and so on, would be, relative to the first list, somewhat remote. The only way stars in the astronomical sense can get any mainstream press is for them to do something really, like, astronomical. Or at least threaten to.
Betelgeuse has always been my favourite star, not least because I loved its name. It is not the brightest in our sky, or in its constellation (Rigel is), but its reddish-orange hue is quite beautiful. And because it is part of the constellation of Orion, it is one of the easier stars to spot. Brightness is no indicator of size when it comes to stars, and Betelgeuse, which is 640 light years away from us is massive. If it were our Sun, we wouldn’t be here to see it – it is so enormous that it would engulf all the planets – possibly as far as the orbit of Jupiter.
Betelgeuse is a star which may go supernova at any moment – in fact it may already have done so. Remember that if a star is 640 light years away, then it takes 640 Earth years for its light to reach us. Whenever we look up at the stars, in a very real sense, we are travelling back in time. With all the 2012 theories, the buzz around Betelgeuse has escalated. There have even been reports that when Betelgeuse goes supernova (or in simpler terms, explodes) in 2012 (a favourite date at the moment) we will have the appearance of twin suns in the sky here! While anyone who loves Star Wars may be entranced by that image, it is exaggerated to say the least. It is certainly likely that we will see the supernova star in daylight, but it will not be anywhere close to the brightness of the Sun. And the explosion will be much too far away to impact the Earth at all – so don’t believe any of the 2012 doomsday theories about Betelgeuse. I have long dreamed of seeing Betelgeuse go supernova in my lifetime – although it will certainly do so at some point, no-one can say whether this will be tomorrow, or in thousands of years.
Part of my fascination with this star stems from its exotic sounding name. Why is it called ‘Betelgeuse’ and where does this name come from? The word Betelgeuse is derived from the star’s Arabic name. There are various explanations for what the name originally meant, including ‘The Armpit of the Central One’ and ‘The Hand of Orion’, but no-one is absolutely certain. Betelgeuse was spelled in several different ways once it made its way into the English language, which lead to some confusion about how to pronounce it. ‘Betelgeux’ and ‘Betelgeuze’ were both contenders. Today ‘Betelgeuse’ is universally accepted as the correct spelling.
So how do you say ‘Betelgeuse’? In simple phonetic spelling it is ‘BEH/tel/jewz‘. Sir James Jeans was a very well known astronomer in the early 20th century, as well as a famous broad-caster and writer. He insisted on pronouncing ‘Betelgeuse’ to sound like ‘Beetle-juice’, which inspired the title of the 1988 movie of the same name directed by Tim Burton, and starring Geena Davis and Michael Keaton. I recently watched a BBC documentary about the Universe, and Betelgeuse was most distinctly pronounced ‘Beetle-juice’. Another, far less common pronunciation is ‘beh/tel/jewx’ which is associated with the ‘Betelgeux’ spelling. Click here to listen to the sound clips of these different pronunciations of Betelgeuse. Which one do you prefer?