Professor’s book combines mythology, astrophysics

Western Carolina University astronomy professor Paul A. Heckert combines ancient constellation mythology and modern astrophysics in his recently released book, “The Hunter and the Scorpion.”

A WCU faculty member for 24 years, Heckert has written a series of five tutorials – short publications that require 30 to 45 minutes of reading time – in recent years that address specific aspects of astronomy and physics and that are aimed at a student audience. “The Hunter and the Scorpion,” a full-length book available on Amazon Kindle, was written with a popular audience in mind, he said.

In mythological lore, Scorpius, the Scorpion, pursues Orion, the Hunter, as they roam across the night sky. Heckert said his book begins with the tale of those constellations and then transitions to the science behind the life cycle of the stars. “Eventually, I build up to the idea that the atoms in our bodies were manufactured by stars,” he said. “Everything around us that’s not hydrogen or helium had to be manufactured in the stars.”

Paul A. Heckert

Paul A. Heckert

Heckert said he hopes the book’s integration of mythology and modern science will appeal to readers who would not ordinarily have an interest in astronomy. His goal in writing the book was “to help readers grasp abstract astrophysical concepts by connecting them to the more easily grasped constellation lore and direct visual observations.”

Heckert earned his doctoral degree in physics with a specialization in astronomy at the University of New Mexico. As an active research astronomer, he has published more than 60 articles over the years, but he got his start as a young boy growing up in Salisbury, peering at the heavens through a telescope. He first became able to pick out Orion in the night sky when he was about 10 years old.

Heckert has been a runner for more than four decades and in recent years has participated in a number of ultra-marathons (races exceeding the marathon length of 26.2 miles). Most recently, he completed the 100-kilometer (62-mile) Weymouth Woods Trail Run at Southern Pines in late January in 19 hours and 32 minutes.

Heckert also has completed 24-hour races, where the goal is to run as many miles as possible in that time period, and runners strive to stay on their feet through the night. “When I got into ultras, I found out that doing astronomy had been good training,” he said. “Staying up all night wasn’t hard for me because I’ve been doing that as an astronomer most of my life.”

The book cover is a mythological representation of the constellation Orion from Johannes Hevelius' 1690 star atlas "Uranographica."

The book cover is a mythological representation of the constellation Orion from Johannes Hevelius’ 1690 star atlas “Uranographica.”