Extreme Thinkover Reaches 40,000-View Milestone

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On March 7, 2012, Extreme Thinkover reached a great milestone by crossing the 40,000 views mark.  I want to express my appreciation to all my readers and subscribers, along with those who just happen to stop by and check out the blog.  Last year was an eventful year for me and I didn’t post as many articles as I have in past years.  But to those of you who have hung in there with me, I extend my special thanks!  So keep checking on the blog site.  There are some new plans in the offing that should not only generate more posts but also provide some great reading.

All my best,

David

P.S., Just for fun here are three photos of my vacation at Mt Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, California.  And thanks to Bruce and Mimi for the invitation!

I'm standing next to the 60" Hale Telescope. It's over 30 feet tall. Photo Credit: John Bogen

When the Hale saw first light in December 1908, it was the largest telescope in the world. George Ellery Hale, who later financed the 200 inch Hale Telescope on Mt Palomar near Pasadena, named the telescope after himself.

This is the chair Albert Einstein sat in when he visited Mt Wilson on January 29, 1931. Note the hair. Photo Credit: John Bogen.

Einstein and the Senior Astronomers (Edwin Hubble is standing directly behind Einstein. Jan 29, 1931. Photo Courtesy of Mt Wilson Observatory.

Hail Endeavour and Her Crew!

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At this moment I’m sitting in my living room watching the coverage of the final launch of Endeavour.  What a magnificent craft she is!  I salute her and all those brave souls who have entrusted her to carry them to the threshold of the universe. God speed, Endeavour!

Space Shuttle Endeavour Landing with Drogue Chute Deployed. Photo: Nasa.gov

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The Final Launch of the Orbiter Endeavour

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Endeavour in Her Element...And Hard at Work. Photo: JPL/NASA

And here is a nice photo of the replica of the HMS Bark Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship under full sail.  It looks large because of the tall masts and the sails, but in reality, the original was 106 ft (32 m).  By way of comparison, Orbiter Endeavour is 122 ft/37 m long (not counting the main external tank, which is 154 ft/47 m).  A number of years ago I had the chance to tour the replica of the HMS Endeavour.  It is a wonderful ship and a fascinating look at history and brings home how difficult the crew’s life was day after day.  No real amenities.  No mission control, and years at sea to circumnavigate the earth instead of 90 minutes.

The HMS Bark Endeavour, Full Size Sailing Replica. Photo Courtesy: thevilloz.com

Correction Update: Much to my embarrassment in my original post, I misspelled “Endeavour.”

Quantum Hope

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Oh, no, not THAT word!

Put the word “quantum” in a title or sentence and people get nervous.  Perhaps their eyes glaze over and they hope that it will go away.  Some stop reading and skip to another article.  Others are so disconcerted by the mere appearance of the term they can’t read another word and turn on their TVs, frantically looking for reruns of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or better yet, Oprah.  Comfort food delivered by cable. Having placed “quantum” in both the title and the first sentence, however, those folks won’t have gotten this far.

So if you are still reading, you are among a small minority who are surprisingly brave and tenacious.  For most of you, however, I still need to allay one other fear: math.  Take a deep breath.  No math.  Please, though, don’t turn off your brain.  I’m going to suggest something that is indeed within the realm of quantum theory, but from a perspective few quantum physicists would entertain.

Consider this a treat.

If you aren’t sure what the quantum in quantum physics entails, I can provide a basic definition by offering a simple word picture.  It’s a matter of scale to describe the universe.  On the very big end is cosmology.  That’s what the giant earth-based observatories,  optical, radio telescopes, and space telescopes (like the Hubble, and the Kepler and the soon to be launched James Webb), look deep into space to better understand.  Cosmologists are interested in our  Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in our neighborhood (we have a really BIG neighborhood) and further out from there to the whole universe.  Astronomers and astrophysicists study the cosmos, the biggest stuff out there.

Quantum physics studies the small end of the universe, smaller than atoms: subatomic particles with great names like quarks, Fermions, leptons and bosons, down to the smallest of the small, called a “bit” (The bit is still theoretical and is also considered a function of entropy. Click here for an explanation [Warning: Contains math formulas]).  They also study how those subatomic particles fit together and work to make the matter we can see.  And that is what a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN straddling the border of France and Switzerland is designed to do.  Remember in The DaVinci Code, where the story starts in this giant underground building?  That’s CERN.  Particle physicists and quantum physicists study the small stuff and the forces that make them work.

What does this have to do with hope?  Everything, actually, but you’ll have to read just a bit more.

Quantum physics and cosmology have one goal in common.  They both want to figure out how the very large relates to the very small.  They want to discover how the smallest quantum bit is the building block for the universe (and maybe a whole bunch of other universes, too, but we’re not going there in this post).  This great quest is called the search for the Theory of Everything, or for short, The Big TOE.  Seriously.  Yeah, you can laugh.

Everything, however, is not scientifically measurable.  Life is one of those things.  I know we can create machines that can detect life and perhaps how much life exists a one place, but life as a phenomenon in the Universe is not measurable.

The whole notion is confounding, and has been the topic of debate among we humans well before the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus‘ manuscript, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.”   For example, Aristarchus of Samos, who lived CA 310-230 BCE, published the first treatise on the heliocentric model of the solar system, On the Sizes and Distances of Sun and Moon, which was then suppressed by the Greek religious authorities of his time because it did not match their beliefs about their gods and life in the universe.  That has a familiar ring to it.

For Half a Millennium…

The past half a millennium, from Copernicus to the present, we have struggled to decide not just what the universe is made of, but what it is at all.  It is the driving force in cosmology and quantum physics.

For those of us who are people of faith, we have also struggled to decide not just what life is made of, but have equally struggled to assign meaning to a concept that seems pervasive to all humans that we label spirituality.  And the greater challenge has been to assign meaning to our religious beliefs and their long-held sacred foundations.   As our understanding of both the Universe and Life have changed (yes, I am deliberately capitalizing both words to communicate that in this context I am seeking to convey a sense of cosmic wholeness) our search for meaning has not gotten any easier.  Why after thousands of years of consciousness in this earthly setting, do we still not understand either?

Diarmuid O’Murcho, who has written extensively about defining a “quantum theology“, states,

The universe knows what it’s about.  That it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else…Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the idea that it is mindful? (Evolutionary Faith, p. 199).

Even as I write the words of O’Murcho’s quote, I admit they sound strange, foreign, even counter-intuitive to me.  My intellectual world has never regarded the universe as mindful.  Neither has my theological world.  Perhaps, though, that has been the problem, my problem: I have viewed these two worlds as separate, distinct, and although I may have been able to conceptualize them as meeting, like two pieces of plate glass. When pressed against each other they have a cohesiveness, but they are still to pieces of glass stuck together.  In the world of the quantum reality, there is no reason for that to always be so.  In fact, it may be that it is only rarely so, because in quantum theory, boundaries and internal existence are not bounded or exist in the way I perceive them.

Spirituality, Cosmology & the Quantum Conundrum…

I come, then, to my most difficult and confounding question.  If I can believe in a mindful God who created a quantum universe, why do I assume that this mindful Creator did not create a mindful Universe in the same way that humans (therefore, me) were created: In the image of God?

If I allow myself to just for a moment to adjust my reality to that perspective, I realize that I see, though in a glass darkly as St. Paul says when he talks about hope (not just love, 1 Co. 13:15), a reason for hope in a universe otherwise devoid and incapable of such mindfulness:

Life is the universe’s sole expression of hope, for without life the universe cannot contemplate its existence, and without hope the universe does not exist.

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The First Image of the Universe as We Never Can See It, Because Our Eyes Cannot See in Microwave Wavelengths. Image: COBE, Goddard Space Flight Center, http://mather.gsfc.nasa.gov/cobe/science.html

Less of Our Light for More Star Light

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I have participated in the GLOBE at Night program sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) for several years and continue to support it for two vitally important reasons:

As an amateur astronomer, light polluted skies wash out both the quality of what can be observed and can radically reduce the number of stars and other celestial objects that can be seen.  Light pollution affects all visual telescopes, no matter how large they are.  That is why the world’s greatest observatories are almost always built on very high peaks in very remote places far away from cities.

 

Light Pollution from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, Mt. Graham Int'l Obs., Arizona. Photo courtesy of Marco Pedani & University of Arizona

Every photon created by artificial light requires a human-manufactured source.  Measured in what is called “kiloWatt hours” (kWh) the electricity that is used to create unnecessary light (overlighting) is a nonrecoverable expense.  We waste billions of kiloWatt hours every year, costing us billions of dollars in the production and service used to create the light that wasn’t needed to begin with.  As we think about our energy production and the price paid to create the fuels to generate it (coal, oil, gas, hydro, nuclear–even solar, wind, wave, geothermal, and other cutting-edge energy-producing technologies require huge costs to meet our power demands), just the amount lost to light pollution cannot be justified from either a perspective of economic sustainability or the stewardship of the earth’s finite resources.

 

Large Binocular Telescope. Currently the world's largest optical telescope for total combined aperture, 16.8 meters, 662 inches (55.16 feet). Mt Graham Int'l Obs., Arizona. Photo courtesy of John Hill and LBTO, University of Arizona.

I invite you to join in the effort to change this one vital part of preserving our natural resources, not just those from the Earth but also those of the sky.  Please watch the short video, and then read the letter from Dr. Constance Walker, PhD*, Director of the GLOBE at Night campaign, and then follow the links to join in the fun of walking out your front door, looking up (I’ll bet you haven’t intentionally looked at the sky in a long time!), and with the very user-friendly GLOBE at Night instructions, instantly become an important participant in a global research project with such important implications.

Please note that the results for people living in the Northern Hemisphere must be submitted by April 4, 2011!

Note: Any connection between exposure to artificial light at night and cancer remains under investigation. The statement in the video represents that of the producers and not necessarily the views of Extreme Thinkover or GLOBE at Night.  See links below for more information**.

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Join the 6th worldwide GLOBE at Night 2011 campaign:

March 22 – April 6

With half of the world’s population now living in cities, many urban dwellers have never experienced the wonderment of pristinely dark skies and maybe never will. This loss, caused by light pollution, is a concern on many fronts: safety, energy conservation, cost, health and effects on wildlife, as well as our ability to view the stars. Even though light pollution is a serious and growing global concern, it can be one of the easiest environmental problems you can address through responsible lighting on local levels.

Participation in the international star-hunting campaign, GLOBE at Night, helps to start the process of addressing the light pollution issue locally as well as globally. The campaign invites everyone all over the world to record the brightness of the night sky. The campaign runs from March 22 through April 4 in the Northern Hemisphere and March 24 through April 6 in the Southern Hemisphere. The campaign is easy and fun to do. First, you match the appearance of the constellation Leo or Crux with simple star maps of progressively fainter stars found.  Then you submit your measurements, including the date, time, and location of your comparison. After all the campaign’s observations are submitted, the project’s organizers release a map of light-pollution levels worldwide. Over the last six annual 2-week campaigns, volunteers from more than 100 nations contributed over 60,000 measurements, 30% of which came from last year’s campaign.

To learn the five easy steps to participate in the GLOBE at Night program, see the GLOBE at Night website. You can listen to this year’s 10-minute audio podcast on light pollution and GLOBE at Night. Or download a 45-minute powerpoint and accompanying audio. GLOBE at Night is also on Facebook and Twitter. (See the links at the end.)

The big news is that children and adults can submit their measurements in real time if they have a smart phone or tablet. To do this, you can use the web application. With smart phones and tablets, the location, date and time are put in automatically. And if you do not have a smart phone or tablet, there are user-friendly tools on the GLOBE at Night report page to find latitude and longitude.

For activities that have children explore what light pollution is, what its effects are on wildlife and how to prepare for participating in the GLOBE at Night campaign, see the Dark Skies Rangers activities. Monitoring our environment will allow us as citizen-scientists to identify and preserve the dark sky oases in cities and locate areas where light pollution is increasing. All it takes is a few minutes during the 2011 campaign to measure sky brightness and contribute those observations on-line. Help us exceed the 17,800 observations contributed last year. Your measurements will make a world of difference.

Primary Mirror, Gran Telescopio CANARIAS, world's largest single aperture, 10.4 meters, 664 inches (55.3 feet). Photo courtesy GTC & ORM, Canary Islands

Primary Mirror, Gran Telescopio CANARIAS, currently the world's largest single aperture optical telescope, 10.4 meters, 664 inches (55.3 feet). Photo courtesy GTC & ORM, Canary Islands

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GLOBE at Night: http://www.globeatnight.org/

Star Maps: http://www.globeatnight.org/observe_magnitude.html

Submitting Measurements: http://www.globeatnight.org/report.html

Web App for Reporting: http://www.globeatnight.org/webapp/

Audio Podcast: http://365daysofastronomy.org/2011/03/07/march-7th-globe-at-night-2011/

Powerpoint: http://www.globeatnight.org/files/NSN_GaN_2011_slides.ppt

Accompanying Audio: http://www.globeatnight.org/files/NSN_GaN_2011_audio.mp3

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/GLOBEatNight

Twitter: http://twitter.com/GLOBEatNight

Dark Skies Activities: http://www.darkskiesawareness.org/DarkSkiesRangers/

The Milky Way as you've probably never seen it under excellent dark skies. View inludes Sagittarius, Libra, Scorpius, Scutum & Ophiuchus from Cerro Tololo, Chile. Photo courtesy of W. Keel, Univ. of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

*Constance Walker, PhD, director, GLOBE at Night campaign (www.globeatnight.org)
chair, International Dark-Sky Association Education Committee
chair, IYA2009 Dark Skies Awareness Cornerstone Project
member, Astronomical Society of the Pacific Board of Directors
associate scientist & senior science education specialist, NOAO
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We Have Seen His Star in the East–Part 2

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Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?

A Stellar Event…Strangely, Not So Unexpected.

In Part 1, I suggested that the story of the Star of Bethlehem is one that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time. I see that as an asset, for perhaps that contradiction contributed to both its lasting power and to its veracity. In the previous post, we looked at the creation myths from the Aztecs of Mesoamerica and from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. These narratives were created by peoples on opposite sides of the Earth who never had contact with each other. Despite that, their creation stories have unmistakable and remarkable similarities that suggest that there is an archetypal human story, following the models about which Joseph Campbell wrote extensively.

The Star of Bethlehem, which appears only in the Gospel of Matthew, is an anomaly. One of the unsolved mysteries of the Nativity narratives is that the star is not mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Other than the opening passages of Genesis the writers of the Bible simply seem to have no interest in the sky, except metaphorically. Stars are lights in the night sky that are compared to something earthly or are evidence of God’s creative power. The Hebrews, however, did have an organized cosmology:

Hebrew Cosmology Illustrated. Photo source: unknown

 

The remarkable contrast of the above Hebrew model of the universe is clearly evident when compared to those of the Aztec’s and the Sumerian’s: In Genesis, there is a complete lack of violence in the act of creation. Few other religions have a similar cosmology in which an Earth Mother-goddess does not have to be destroyed and her various body parts used to make the earth, sky and humans. The ancient Hebrews had knowledge of these various stories from Mesopotamia and from Egypt, but in the Genesis account, those elements do not appear. For example, this Egyptian version (one of many Egyptian origin myths) demonstrates the more common world view of the Beginning:

 

Egyptian Creation Myth Illustrated--This Picture is based on the "Heliopolis Cosmogony," one of several dominant myths in the Egyptian Pantheon.

The Problem of “The Sky.”

I also suggested that humans began to differentiate the sky being distinct from the land and the oceans perhaps around circa 4300 years ago. Gavin White (2008), in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, maintains that “Babylonian astrologers started to export to their neighbors as early as the 13th century BCE” (p. 7). He goes on to contend that the development of natal horoscopes required a level of mathematics that was compiled in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, with the first modern equivalents finally appearing in the 5th century, or 2500 years ago. It is this assertion that raises the prospect of historically credible ties to planetary observations by Matthew’s Magi, and the possibility that the Star of Bethlehem’s discovery, or rather interpretation of a sky-based observation, was based on their millennial old texts and maps of the constellations.

These particular Magi were likely among the most highly educated individuals from any civilization, and familiar with astronomy from the known regions of the world. That would include Greece, where we must take a brief trip to meet the man who changed the sky and the universe four hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

To set the stage, I return to the question, “What is the sky?” White shares my view that these ancient cosmologies are neither crude nor primitive:

Today this “flat-earth” cosmology is generally belittled as being rather “primitive” and as far as it is given any attention it is relegated to the kindergarten of metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, as the model is actually a rather elegant presentation of archaic man’s view of himself and the universe in which he acted and had his being. It is a complex view of the world, one full of awe that utilizes the mysterious language of symbolism, where every element is a part of an interrelated network of forces. This model also underpins the rationale of celestial divination and magic, mankind’s first attempts to foretell and forestall the shape of things to come. (p. 21)

The tools of those attempts included defining the constellations, plotting the motion of the planets, phases of the moon, vital because they were tied to the seasons, but of course eclipses: lunar, more common than solar, the unexpected darkening of the day often believed to be a portent of evil or disasters.  To many in the ancient world only comets might inspire a greater fear.

From China to India, Persia to the Mediterranean, Egypt across the great Sahara of North Africa, Asia Minor, Greece, the expanse of the Roman Empire all the way to Britannia, the great celestial scroll of the night sky unrolled from horizon to horizon, open to be examined, its mysteries to be plumbed, and the fate of humans read in its aetherial language.

Sometime around the 7th century BCE, in Greece, the question of the sky rose once more, and a startlingly new answer was ventured. What if, these renegade philosophers dared to suggest, using their emerging expertise in mathematics and geometry, the sky was not the abode of the gods? What if the sky was a place, just like the earth, that the Sun, Moon and stars, even the ones which wander, were places? And if that were even possible, how far away were these places? What caused them to move around the earth? And if they moved, what if the Earth moved, too?  The intellectual battle raged for over 400 years, but no one could seem to find that one all-important key to prove whether it was right or wrong.

 

The Greek Geocentric Cosmos. Photo: Source Courtesy, A.H., 1996.

These were dangerous questions, on the level of heresy, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

The Sky Problem Solved–But 1700 Years Too Soon!

Aristarchus of Samos

Those willing to think about daring questions at times come up with extraordinary answers.  One such radical was Aristarchus of Samos, a mathematician and astronomer who lived circa 310-230 BCE.  Samos, a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, lies in the archipelago that separates modern Greece from Turkey.  An older contemporary of Archimedes, he was known among his generation as “the Mathematician.”

According to Sir Thomas Heath, who published Aristarchus’ full text of “On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon” into English (1913, 2004), “There is not the slightest doubt that Aristarchus was the first to put forward the heliocentric hypothesis. Ancient testimony is unanimous on the point and the first witness is Archimedes, who was a younger contemporary of Aristarchus, so that there is no possibility of a mistake. Copernicus, himself admitted that the theory was attributed to Aristarchus, though this does not seem to be generally known” (p. 301).

Archimedes, to his discredit, did not accept Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory and campaigned against it. Aristarchus’ idea was not theologically popular either in some circles. One Cleanthes attempted to indict the Mathematician “on the charge of impiety for putting into motion the Hearth of the Universe… ” (Heath, p. 304). What enraged Cleanthes was Aristarchus used geometry to prove his hypotheses: “by supposing the heaven to remain at rest and the earth to revolve around an oblique circle, while it rotates, at the same time, about its own axis” (Ibid.). No one knew how prescient this hypothesis really was, until seventeen hundred years later another mathematician named Copernicus reached the same conclusion after studying Aristarchus’ text , and a second, 150 years after him, one named Galileo.

The Magi: The Hubble, Sagan, and Hammel of Their Age

What is the connection to our Christmas Star? Aristarchus used star charts and calculations developed by the Babylonians centuries earlier. Sir Thomas presents a number of examples where Aristarchus used, what he called “Chaldean lunations,” basically books of tables that all mathematicians of the era would have as a standard in their libraries (p. 314).

The Magi, it is reasonable to infer, would have read Aristarchus. Mathematically he was an “Einstein” of his age, his texts were in circulation, and even though they likely would not have accepted his heliocentric hypothesis, just like modern astronomers who still read Copernicus’ and Galileo’s works, they would have studied his math proofs and geometry to predict lunar and solar eclipses, and to calculate “The Great Year,” “which is completed by the sun, the moon, and the five planets when they return together to the same sign in which they were once before simultaneously found” (quote from Censorinus AD 238; Ibid, p. 316).

That very high level of geometric expertise would have been invaluable in calculating planetary conjunctions with a high degree of accuracy.  Furthermore, the ability to correctly forecast the birth of a king was the Gold Medal of astrology/astronomy. Whoever they were, the Magi were convinced they had gotten this one right, and with a level of confidence so strong they were willing to travel from their homes somewhere east of Jerusalem, command an audience with King Herod and tell him right to his face!

Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. (Mt 2:2, NIV)

Saying that to a reigning monarch is the kind of thing that could get you beheaded in short order. What stayed Herod’s hand? Perhaps the sight of this from an east-facing palace balcony:

Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition. The proof, as they say is in the pudding. This is a natural sky view of the proposed Star of Bethlehem. See if you can spot it without scrolling down to the annotated version.

A Historical Event Reconstructed out of a Myth: The Power of Good Science and an Astronomy Software Program

Michael Bakich, a Senior Editor of Astronomy Magazine writes in the January 2010 issue:

The biblical account says that the wise men spoke to Herod about the star. Neither Herod nor his scholars knew what they were talking about. No other Bible verse or secular writing mentions the star. What was it? Could it be Matthew, the only gospel writer who mentions the star, wanted to prove to his readers what he knew from reading the Old Testament? I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh; there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel… (Num. 24:17). Did the writer of Matthew invent a story to fulfill this prophecy from Moses? Most historians don’t think so (p. 37).

The solution is most likely a planetary conjunction. It is not, in the end, the definitive answer, nor does it subtract the mystery and miracle of that night.

It was the Star of Wonder. And if this particular conjunction or cycle of conjunctions that occured in 3 BCE signaled the birth of the Savior, how we can rejoice what a clever God we worship!

Bethlehem Star 12Aug -03 Jerusalem 0210hrs with Annotations. Star Chart by TheSky6 Serious Astronomer Edition

One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the Magi as they pointed this astronomical event out to Herod and his astrologers, going over their data and calculations. We know what was going through Herod’s mind.

The conjunction would have been very bright. Jupiter was shining at a magnitude of -1.8 and was at 99.98% phase full (think full Moon), and Venus was at a shadow-producing magnitude by itself of -3.9 and 93.38% full phase! Regulus by contrast would have almost seemed dim at its very bright -1.38 magnitude, and Sirius, the brightest star in the northern sky at -1.44 magnitude was glowing high in the SW sky.

Star of Bethlehem with Magi Card

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Matt 2:9.

Merry Christmas and may the Blessings of the Christ Child Come to You and Your Loved Ones.

 

We Have Seen His Star in the East–Myth or Astronomical Event?

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Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

 

The Star of Bethlehem? No, it's Canopus, 2nd Brightest Star in the Sky and a Specular Stand-in. 310 Light Years Distant. Image by D. Pettit taken from the ISS. Photo: NASA

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Prologue

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start to which I was alluding.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf.  Photo: NASA.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. It is Procyon, 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf. 11 Light Years Distant. Photo: NASA.

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First, Some Historical Background

The Babylonian Cosmos. Image Courtesy: Gavin White. From: Babylonian Star-Lore, 2008. Click on the image for a larger version.

Around nine to ten thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that is very hard to read.  White (2008) in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, suggests that Babylonian astrology began as early as 15,000 years ago, although he states that the practice of astrology was quite different than the modern version.  It relied on mathematical calculations written on clay tablets and the earliest tablets have been dated to the 7th or 8th Century, BCE.  So, I’ll suggest ten thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

At this point I need to dispel one very important misconception: the fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, or that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

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The Sky is a Problem, a Big Problem

If This was the Bethlehem Star, it Would Have Really Gotten Everyone's Attention. It isn't. This is Wolf-Rayet 104, a Totally Strange Double Star, But This Time, Both Stars are Massive. 8000 Light Years. Photo: NASA/Keck Telescope, Hawaii

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was an unexplainable event in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing.  The same thing happened to  the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that, too, is secondary to our discussion.

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

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What was the sky?

Supernova AD 1054. Chaco Canyon Petroglyph. Photo: Richard Goode, Porterville College, Calif.

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.  Of course, there were to main players in the diurnal cycle.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.  Our ancestors had figured out that part even before the start of our story.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.  Still the phases of the moon was so reliable that as humans began to cultivate their food, not just gather it, the Moon’s monthly journey and phases became an essential resource for the planting, growing and harvesting the crops.

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The Dilemma of the Wandering Stars

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings, at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light every two annual cycles.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine but not twinkle like the others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Milky Way Band. Photo Courtesy of John Gleason/NASA

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and recurring risings and settngs as the year progressed from the shortest days to the longest.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and motions.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them, was another thing altogether.

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The First Astronomers

Sunburst Petroglyph, Chemehuevi People, near Lanfair, CA. Photo Courtesy: Donald Austin & NASA

To explain the sky, both day and night, these earliest of astonomers drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

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The Aztec Creation Story: Mother Sun Dismembered

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres.

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The Sumerian Creation Myth: The Mother Goddess Gets Dismembered

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.

 

Updated: Rosetta Still Speaks–Not From Egypt’s Eternal Sands but in a Voice “Thro’ Vast Immensity can Pierce”

It's Just One Boring Day After Another. Photo Courtesy Zazzle.com, UK

I don’t know about you, but my life most weeks is pretty routine.  Even though I work in a setting where no two days are the same, in some respects (I never know which patients I’ll be seeing or what their issues will be) my schedule is predictable, Monday through Friday, with a night of being on-call every other week (One thing is certain, here.  If you get called in the night, it’s never good!  Chaplains don’t get called for the happy stuff at night—that’s just a given.  And with our large service area and being a Trauma II hospital, it’s a rare night I don’t get called).

With that in mind, I look to other sources to provide the unique, the unexpected, the stunning, the beautiful, the historic.  What takes my breath away? Beauty where there should only be the drab.  Inspiration from the simplest of the simple where there should only be plainness.  And historic perspectives never glimpsed by the human eye.

Lagerfeld (TM) Rose Blossom. Photo: David Waggoner

We’ve gotten used to the magnitude of the beauty of the galaxy from photos by the Hubble Space Telescope, or the Twin Keck’s on Mauna Kea’s lofty peak, or composites made possible by the digitization of multiple pictures of the same object taken in various light spectra by different space and earth-based observatories.  The robotic

Cassini Huygens Titan Montage. Photo: NASA/JPL/ESA

probe expeditions to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, such as Galileo and Cassini, respectively, not to mention the earlier Voyagers, have so completely revised our understanding of those miniature solar systems that astronomy textbooks written even five years ago are hopelessly out of date.  In a century Mars has gone from a planet believed to have a struggling civilization, to a dusty, dead, rocky world with no potential, back to a world of potential and interesting; the search for life in space has zeroed in on it as prime suspect #1.  The discovery and confirmation of water ice, just inches below

Mars 27Aug03 at Opposition by HST. Photo: HST/NASA

its surface is reigniting the global interest to send a human crew to investigate, even though the political and economic chaos rippling around the makes the realization of that dream tenuous at best.  Saturn’s moon Titan has now been to be discovered to be so earthlike, although its rains, and rivers and oceans are of methane that astronomers are stunned and rewriting what a planet is and what an active environment can be every few months.  I could go on and on.

Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE, Disc. 1799 in Egypt. Photo: British Museum, London

The picture below fits into the category of “Historic Views Never Seen Before by Human Eyes”.  The photographer is the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Space Probe launched in 2004 whose ultimate destination is the comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it is scheduled to reach in 2014.  Like a miniature Casinni-Huygens, Rosetta will launch a probe, the Philae Lander to the surface of the comet and gather data to be radioed back to Earth.  So it has a way to go, but is on track to make its target date.  Rosetta’s trajectory is a gravity-assisted boost cycle, circling the Sun and planetary flybys to increase its speed and set it up for its ultimate goal.

Along the way, Rosetta has encountered several asteroids, the most recent being 21 Lutetia.  This is the last asteroidal encounter before the probe is put into deep space hibernation as it flies toward the comet.

Rosetta Spacecraft Probe. Image Courtesy: ESA

Just released is one of those stunning photos, historic in that no human eye has ever seen 21 Lutetia other than as a dim dot of light, but in the distance is the grand dame of the Solar System, Saturn.  The black of space punctuated by a small asteroid—a piece of the earliest solar system—in the foreground and in the distance—massive Saturn, millions of miles distant but still unmistakable with its signature rings.  The asteroid photo, taken from a distance of  22,300 miles, shows it is approximately 81 miles on its long axis.  Such stark beauty of the very small and the massive opposite in their juxtaposition against the eternal night of deep space takes my breath away!

21 Lutetia Asteroid from 36,000 km by Rosetta with Saturn in Background. Photo: ESA

I end with these prescient verses written nearly 300 years ago by a man who could only imagine in the most rudimentary fashion the reality of deep space, but ended up describing it with a beauty in word, expressing an amazingly close reality of what we know today:

Of man, what see we but his station here,

From which to reason, or to which refer?

Thro’ worlds unnumber’d tho’ the God be known,

‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own.

He, who thro’ vast immensity can pierce,

See worlds on worlds compose one universe,

Observe how system into system runs,

What other planets circle other suns,

What vary’d being peoples every star,

May tell why heav’n has made us as we are.

by Alexander Pope, OF THE NATURE AND STATE OF MAN WITH RESPECT TO THE UNIVERSE, from The Essay on  Man, Epistle 1. 1732

21-Lutetia Close Up: An Update

The European Space Agency has released another image of 21-Lutetia taken by Rosetta at a distance (astronomically speaking) of only 1965 miles.  That’s approximately the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Indianapolis, non-stop.  Or, if you live East of the Mississippi, from Washington, D.C. to Phoenix, Arizona.

Asteroid 21 Lutetia from 1965 miles (3162 km) by Rosetta Spacecraft. Image: ESA

From Astronomy.com:

The July 10 flyby was a spectacular success with Rosetta performing faultlessly. Closest approach took place at a distance of 1,965 miles (3,162 kilometers).

The images show that Lutetia is heavily cratered, having suffered many impacts during its 4.5 billion years of existence. As Rosetta drew close, a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of the asteroid rotated into view. The images confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side around 81 miles (130 km).

The pictures come from Rosetta’s Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) instrument, which combines a wide-angle and a narrow-angle camera. At closest approach, details down to a scale of 200 feet (60 meters) can be seen over the entire surface of Lutetia.