Counting stars: Brazil's flag is loaded with symbolism.
Recently I’ve been up even later into the night than would normally be expected of a dedicated astronomer. The reason is a phenomenon that can only be observed every four years – the World Cup, this year from Brazil.
If, like me, you’ve watched not only all the Australian games live, but also matches featuring the more highly skilled nations, you could not help noticing the Brazilian flag. What a lot of stars! This nation of 200 million people has a flag of a green background and a yellow rhombus, with a blue celestial globe and a curved band inscribed with a motto meaning ‘‘order and progress’’, plus 27 white stars.
It began with fewer stars but, because they represent the states and the federal district, each time a new state was created a star was added to the flag.
Nine constellations are depicted and the most prominent is the Southern Cross. But looking carefully at the way it’s depicted on Brazil’s flag, there’s something wrong – it does not match our own. This is because on our flag it is shown as we see it looking up at the sky, but the Brazilians show it as though you are an infinite distance away in space and looking from behind the stars down to earth.
This is how stars are traditionally depicted on celestial globes.
The stars portray the sky as seen at the birth of the modern state of Brazil at 8.30am on November 15, 1889.
There’s a touch of confusion, though, about the band on which the motto is written, as to whether it represents the ecliptic – the path followed by the sun, moon and planets – or the celestial equator, an imaginary line in space directly above the Earth’s equator. Either way, there’s only one star depicted above it, which signifies Brazil’s only state that is north of the equator.
Despite every star on the flag representing a real star in the sky, apart from the Southern Cross, the other constellations are stylised and loosely placed; a chart of the sky it is not!
Now back to the game. Gooooooaaal!