Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?

Part 1

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 I to which I was alluding.

Flores sapiens next to Homo sapiens. Photo Credit: National Geographic & Nature/ Peter Brown

Sometime around six thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and the Cro Magnon (Arcahic Homo sapiens) were long extinct; one hominid now possessed all that was known to exist (the earliest dating for Homo florsiensis is currently 18K years). It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that gets harder and harder to read.  So, I’ll suggest six 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.

I need to, at this point, dispel one very important, misconception.   That is the

Turkana Boy: Homo erectus, 1.5 mil. yrs. Field Museum, Chicago. Replica. Your ancestor? Yes. Your intellectual equal? Nope.

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, that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out, or even your cousin Zeke.  All right, maybe not cousin Zeke, but that is only because he hasn’t put down the game controller or said a single word since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 113 came out.  He may be more cyborg than human after all this time.

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.

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.

Geese flying over the surf. Oregon Coast, Sept '07

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 a day in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing, or the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, too, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

Lunar Elipse, Feb. 27, 2007. Photo credit:

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 is secondary to our discussion, as well.

Milky Way over Mauna Kea. Photo credit: Mauna Kea Observatory

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.

What was the sky?

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.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance

Total Solar Eclipse with Diamond Ring Effect

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.

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.

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.  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 without the twinkle of all 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?

Five planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - gather over the ancient Stonehenge monument in England. *Image Copyright*: Philip Perkins

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 cycles.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and cycles.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them was another thing altogether.

To explain the sky, both day and night, these individuals 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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

Rocket Powered Camels

Okay, let’s start with the obvious.  The sun, the moon, planets and stars rise in the east and set in the west.  We all know this; everybody knows this.  Even before Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo (in the 1500s and early 1600s) figured out the motion was due to the rotation of the earth and not of a cosmic celestial bowl turning over a stationary earth, the day and night cycle was something everybody just knew because that’s what everyone observed, day after day.  And aside from the occasional comet or meteor shower, everything in the sky rose in the east and set in the west.  “Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in secula seculorum. Amen.  Alleuluia.

What few astronomical references we have from the Bible, it’s always rise in the east and set in the west.  The passage in Joshua 10:12-15 doesn’t contradict this.  According to the text, Joshua asks the Lord to stop the motion of the sun and the moon “in the middle of the day” (v. 13a), and “[the sun] did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (v. 13b).  Some day, huh.

Neither does the curious passage in Isaiah 38, in which the Lord directs Isaiah to tell the dying Hezekiah that the sign of his healing will be, “‘I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to back ten steps.’  So the sun’s shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down” (Is 38:8).  Isaiah then heals the king’s near-fatal boil by applying to it a “cake of figs” (v 21).  That’s the NASB’s translation.  The NIV says a “poultice of figs,” but to my way of thinking the whole idea of a poultice has a much higher “yuck” factor even if it is more literal.  Of course, why they just didn’t do the whole fig-cake thing to begin with, we’ll never know.  Anyway, modern Astronomy doesn’t have an answer to either of these accounts, but it doesn’t matter.  The Israelites won the battle over the Amorites, and Hezekiah got a 15-year lease on life, so don’t knock it.

All right, where is this going?  I do have a plan.

Fast forward to the Nativity narrative in Matthew, with the Magi.  When Magi AstroConsulting ™ show up at Herod’s court in Jerusalem, they said they had seen this new star in the east, that according to their Cray Supercomputers, er, magination and divinations had determined it signified a new King of the Jews.  Aside from the fact this rather impolitic announcement spread like wildfire in all the local papyrus tabloids and cable TV talking heads, their announcement, was astronomically correct.

These astronomer/astrologers were east-centric.  From our modern perspective, space is a big, big place and the whole notion of the cardinal points of north, south, east and west, are not of much significance in a universe that stretches infinitely away on all vectors from our small blue dot. That’s for us landlubbers, anyway.  Navigation by air or sea requires the correct heading or bad things will happen.

But the guys at Magi AstroConsulting ™ lived in a much cozier universe, and predicting accurately what stuff in the sky came into view, when, and in what order made all the difference (not to mention keeping their heads connected to their necks).  Therefore, prior to the Copernican Revolution, the most important direction was EAST.  Besides with artificial lighting to accompany us at all times, we in modern culture rarely look up anyway.  What’s the point?  I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THE POINT IS…oh, sorry, I don’t want to cry and get my computer keyboard wet.

So the Magi see this star rise in the east and watch its track to where it sets in the west.  Although they couldn’t compute longitude (the vertical grid circling the globe), they could compute latitude (the horizontal lines), and throwing in a little astrology to plot which constellation signifies an auspicious event in the land of the Jews, they packed up their dromedarian SUVs and headed west.  ROAD TRIP!  The Route 66 of the Ancient World!  Destination Jerusalem!  On the way back, they’d hit Caesarea Phillipi, hang out on the beach, catch a few shows.  Some things never change.

The plot thickens, of course, because in present day, every off the shelf astronomy computer software program can calculate the night sky between 10,000 B.C. and A.D. 10,000 (10,000 C.E if you want to archeologically correct), and there were some very interesting things happening in the sky between 6 B.C. and A.D. 6., but we’ll deal with that story nearer Christmas.

And as for the star guiding the Magi caravan to the house in Bethlehem?  Well, there’s west (recall they were going west) and then there’s west.  Remember, the sun sets truly in the west only twice a year: at the Spring and Fall Equinoxes.  As soon as one deviates from true south or north in a westward direction, then one is “going” west.  That’s about a 180-degree variation of “westerly.”  So, despite the fact Bethlehem is slightly southwest of Jerusalem, it’s no big stretch to get everything to line up.  Of course, the Matthew narrative is much more satisfying, so since they found the right place, don’t knock it.

Double fast-forward to modern day.  I’m standing in my driveway looking west for the newest star in the heavens to appear.  Yes, west.  Didn’t seem right, with all I have just written, but west it was.  And it wasn’t really a star.  It was the International Space Station.  The fourth brightest object in the sky, and as well, only the fourth object in the sky to be visible in daylight (not counting the rare supernova or bollide meteorite).  Why west to east?  That’s the direction of the rotation of the earth.  It’s the rotation of the Jet Stream.  Spacecraft generally are launched with the earth’s spin.  Takes less fuel.  Launch to orbit in eight minutes.

So, there I was.  8:23 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.  Out of the glow of the setting sun a golden star, the brightest object in the sky, soars overhead.  Fast!  Very fast!  About two and a half minutes from horizon to horizon.  I was stunned!  About it’s size.  Of it’s brilliance.  And of the implication that every few nights, when the clouds of the great Cascade rain forest part for even a few moments that I will be able to step outside and watch this golden orb slide overhead.

A naked eye object.  A real spaceship. A human presence in space.  Not science fiction.  Real.  Just step out of your home every few nights and look up.  You can check the schedule for your Zip Code by going to and clicking on the “Satellite Flybys.”

And I imagined what the Magi might have thought if such a thing, this golden star had soared over their heads, west to east.  Going the wrong direction.  To follow that star, they’d need rocket-powered camels!

ISS Glides Over Butser, England.  3 Mar 09.  Credit: Martin Saban-Smith,

ISS Glides Over Butser, England. 3 Mar 09. Credit: Martin Saban-Smith,

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

This week I inaugurated a new blog called “DÎSCÎ,” which is the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry. (It is pronounced “dye-sigh”). The address is:  DÎSCÎ’s homebase is on The Intersection, which is a companion site for members and friends of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sponsored by DisciplesWorld, an independently published print and online magazine for the Disciples.

I have, for some time, wanted to create a forum, an online institute in which people of faith could discuss the many issues regarding religion and science.  But my idea was to move beyond the creation-evolution debate and start a conversation of what it means to be a person of faith, particularly from the Judeo-Christian perspective in a universe that is very large, very old, and to give genuine credit to the advances in science over the past nearly 500 years.

I am grateful for the assistance of Rebecca Woods, who created The Intersection and serves on the DisciplesWorld staff, for her interest and encouragement in launching DÎSCÎ.  Here, then is the Inaugural Post of the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry.

DĪSCĪ Space Theme

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

Day and night. The most important cycle that governs our lives. Our bodies are finely attuned to the light of day and the dark of night.  It is as natural as breathing.  We think of that 24 hour cycle as very simple.  The earth spins on its axis; part of its surface is always in light and part is always in dark.  It has been this way since the creation of the world.  Both of the creation stories in the Bible, in Genesis 1 and 2 use the word “day” to describe God’s creative activity.

There is, however, nothing simple about it at all.  The complex set of forces that keep us safely spinning around the life-giving warmth of the Sun are only now beginning to be understood.

Yet, because of its constancy, we take it for granted.

Let me ask you a question.  When was the last time, when you left your home after dark, that you actually looked up at the sky?  Not just a glance, but looked up with intention to see what, well, what you could see?

I’ll venture a guess: Probably only rarely.  If you live in an urban setting, the combination of light pollution and air pollution might make it nearly impossible to see much of anything.  If your home is in a rural part of the country, you may very well be able to see the starry arc of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.  And if you are fortunate enough to live or visit well away from a population center, the night sky can be so bright you hardly need a flashlight to move around safely.

Whatever you can see, though, when you look up into the sky is not the present but the past.  The photons hitting the retina in your eyes are all different ages even though every one of those photons is traveling at exactly the same speed–the famous speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 km per second.  Astronomers call this “look back time.”

The light reflected from the moon takes just a tick over one second to reach Earth.  The Sun, some 93 million miles away, takes around 8 minutes. The farther the object is from me, the older the light is when it reaches my eyes.  When Earth passes by Mars (which is the fourth rock from the sun), the light takes anywhere between three and about six minutes to reach us, because both orbits of Earth and Mars are elliptical, just slightly egg-shaped.

If I point my telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy (also called M31), which even in my suburban backyard I can easily see, I am looking at light that is over 2.5 million years old!  And Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way.  In fact, Andromeda and the Milky Way are moving toward each other and some billions of years into the future, they will collide and merge.  Astronomers call it, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Milkomeda.”

Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images
Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images.  Our Solar System lives in the Orion Arm.

You get the idea.  The farther away the object is, the older the light is when it reaches Earth.

The other key concept is that everything in the universe is moving, and not just moving haphazardly, but expanding away from each other (the trajectories of some galaxies, like the Milky Way and Andromeda, will cause them to collide).  That’s what Edwin Hubble proved in 1925, using the Hooker 100 inch Telescope on Mt Wilson just up the hill from Pasadena, California, that was threatened by the huge “Station Fire” just last week.  This discovery led to the realization that the universe was expanding from a beginning point in space and time, which we now call the Big Bang.  And just a few years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe is not just expanding, it is accelerating.

What we’re interested in, though, is the Beginning, not the End.  Astrophysicists have wound the cosmic clock backward and come up with an age that the Universe is about 13.7 billion years old.  That’s old. Really old.  Can we see anything that old in the sky?  No, we can’t.  But modern telescopes have gotten so powerful that we can see a long way away and therefore back in time.  On September 2, 2009,  Prof. Tomatsugu Goto of the University of Hawaii released this photo of the most distant galaxy with a central black hole, and therefore oldest object ever observed.  It is 12.8  billion light years from us and the mass of the black hole is estimated to be  a billion times that of our sun.

QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged
QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged. 12.8 Bn LY Distant.  Photo: T. Goto, University of Hawaii.

Ponder this image for a few moments, as pixelated as it is.  This is the image of a real galaxy with a real black hole at its center (just like our galaxy has, by the way) that existed  billion years ago.

Here on Earth, which by comparison is only 4.5 billion years old, we humans–in particular we humans of the Judeo-Christian heritage–have viewed our universe as being, well, kind of cozy.  As the old saying goes, “God’s in his (sic) heaven and all’s right with the world.”  And although about 500 years ago that coziness began to be challenged and started unraveling when Copernicus published his “On the Revolutions” in 1543, we have been mostly content to think and talk about God in the way we always have.

Enter the dawn of the 21st Century. We are struck by the enormity of what  astrophysics has revealed to us; new discoveries make the news every week.  The universe is not cozy.  It is huge, old, complex, colder than we can imagine and hotter than we can imagine.  The very molecules that make up our bodies were born out of forces we can barely describe when stars blew themselves apart.

How do we talk about God in this kind of reality?  And life? Life on one planet in a universe that stretches 46.5 billion lights years in every direction?  How do you talk about God in this reality?

This is where we will start.  The Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry is officially open for discussion.

Before you answer, if you can, go outside and look up into the sky for a while, and ponder what is out there, as ancient photons hit your retina, and your brain translates them into the points of light we call stars.