The Star of Bethlehem – Found once more!

In the western sky at dusk on June 17, 2 BCE, a strange, brilliant "star" dominates the Bethlehem horizon among the more familiar stars of Leo. (Chart from Starry Nights.)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East [or at its rising] and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. – Matthew, New King James Version

Is this the star of which Matthew wrote? A recent newspaper headline seems to indicate it is.

Astronomer Dave Reneke believes he has solved the Star of Bethlehem mystery

* Software maps Star of Bethlehem
* ‘Solves mysteries’
* ‘Pinpoints star’s location, date of Jesus’ birth’

I don’t think so.

In fact, I believe anyone can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart and if you can find it there it will blaze forth for you in the smile of a child, in the brilliance of Venus in this year’s western sky at dusk, in the bouncing joy of a puppy, or in the kind gesture of neighbor, friend or enemy, for the star is simply a symbol of the Christian spirit of Christmas – nothing more, nothing less.

Still, every year at this time I, like anyone with a little knowledge of the night skies, gets questions and suggestions about that wondrous star – the one the Wise Men in the East saw at it’s rising. The one they told Herod about. And the one that went before them as they journeyed to Bethlehem and stopped and in some miraculous way told them which house it was over and so they entered. They did not, as so many Christmas scenes represent, kneel before a child in a manager. What they found, the Bible says, is Mary and a “young child” in the house. In fact, using the information he got from the Wise Men, King Herod calculated that the child was as much as two years old, so he ordered all children under the age of two killed.

(Hmmm. . . is there a lesson for us there – about how human beings can take a piece of news and turn it into a horror story through their reactions?)

This story – with its truly horrible ending – is told in only the Gospel of Matthew. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and there is no indication in Matthew’s account that anyone except the Wise Men was aware of this star. So even from the Biblical account I think it’s reasonable to assume there was no really obvious change in the heavens, but a change that could only be detected by Wise Men – people who followed and interpreted the meaning of the stars – what today we would call astrologers. It’s obvious such changes took place – but it’s impossible to prove they were connected to the birth of Jesus.

However, many people assume there really is some blazing Christmas star that was seen 2,000 years ago and they want to know if they too can see it. The issue, with all it’s spiritual overtones, can’t be proven one way or the other. I find searching for it as hard, provable fact about as satisfactory as searching for the historical Jesus – and a meaningless exercise in either case. As I said – yes you can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart for the Spirit of Christmas – look for all those things the Christians brought to the pagan celebration of the return of the Sun after the winter solstice – the spirit of love, of joy, of peace on earth and good will to men – a spirit of universal harmony which is certainly dear to me. I’m serious. Find that and it will be the most wondrous “star” you will ever “see.”

OK – that obviously doesn’t satisfy a lot of literally-minded people and many have sought the “real” star. My friend Dom – who is not so literally-minded – thought a recent news story from Australia would interest the amateur astronomer in me and it does. It is of one more “discovery” of this star. Take a moment and detour off to take look here.

I think that story is wrong in many ways – not the least of which is the implication that a fancy computer is needed to do the kind of calculation referenced in the story. It isn’t. I can do this on my computer using Starry Night software – and I’ve done so. You could too with any of a number of software packages. And planetarium directors have spiced up countless Christmas shows with one version or another of the star story using their special projectors and they have been doing this throughout my lifetime. In fact about 40 years ago I wrote a feature story for the local newspaper about one such planetarium director’s theory of the Star of Bethlehem. He attributed it to a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. He had a very clever interpretation involving the retrograde movement of the planets which made the “star” – in this case “star” was taken to mean an astrological sign – in fact stand still before the Wise Men. And to the naked eye when a planet – a wandering star – switches from normal to retrograde motion it does for a few days appear to stand still. How in the world you would coordinate this action with a specific house and decide to enter that house is anyone’s guess – but astrology involves lots of interpretations which I think are pure guesswork and fantasy. (Yes, it drives me crazy when people confuse astrology with astronomy!)

But long before the computer, long before the fancy planetarium projectors, wise men were doing the math and working backwards and “discovering” all sorts of explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. One such wondrous explanation came from none-other than the genuinely great scientist Kepler who 400 years ago was the first to discover that planets moved in ellipses about the Sun – not circles – and through his calculation learned about that long ago triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that my friend the planetarium director used. (That one was in 7 BCE, as I recall – not 2 BCE.)

But Kepler didn’t think that conjunction was the star – though it is often reported that this is what he thought, Kepler actually thought that the triple conjunction somehow spawned a later nova – a brilliant, exploding star. He came to this incredible conclusion because he witnessed a nova – new star – and such a planetary conjunction had occurred a year or two before in the same area of the sky. So he reasoned that there was some connection between a spectacular – and rare – planetary conjunction and nova. There isn’t, of course – a planetary conjunction is a mere alignment of the planets so that from our point of view they appear to be very close to one another when in fact they remain hundreds of millions of miles apart. And there are trillions of miles between them and even the nearest stars, so again any alignment is simply how we see things.

None of this prevents the authority in the story from Australia from declaring that he has identified the Star of Bethlehem and it is in fact a conjunction of planets – in this case the two brightest ones we see, Jupiter and Venus. That’s cool because on December 1, 2008 many people all over the world saw a wonderful conjunction of Venus and Jupiter with the crescent Moon to form (in Australia) a smiley face – a frowny face over us – but by all means a spectacular sky event. (See this earlier post, and this one, and this one.)

I do believe that one problem with the conjunction suggested in this latest news story is that it would indeed be an awe-inspiring event to the general public – it would fit the usual popular interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem as a spectacular sign in the night sky. But Matthew seems to think that only the Wise Men were aware of this event.

The Jupiter-Venus conjunction – the focus of the latest story – took place on June 17, 2 BCE. The two planets are so close together I believe they would have been seen by the naked eye , for a brief time, as a single star of exceptional brilliance. The brightest objects in our sky are the Sun, Moon, Venus, and Jupiter in that order. So to combine the last two would result in the appearance of an unusally bright star. (In those days the only difference between a star and a planet was the star seemed to stay put and the planets “wandered.”)

By the way – this event, the conjunction in 2 BCE, has been known for decades, I’m not sure how long exactly, but I have found it mentioned in an article about planetarium shows printed in 1981, so I hardly see this as new. In fact that article is a great source for a variety of different explanations for the star.

But I understand the excitement. And if you are looking for a star to make your personal reminder of the Star of Bethlehem this Christmas, I suggest you look into the western sky – southwest for most of North America – and you’ll see brilliant Venus a bit higher each night at dusk as we approach Christmas. It will be easy to see – it is the first “star” to come out and it shines brighter than any other – absolutely dazzling in full darkness.

That is my personal Christmas Star this year – and it has been many other years, but not all. Venus goes through cycles where sometimes it’s a “morning star” and sometimes an “evening star” and these aren’t in sync with our calendar, so it is only some years that it happens to be prominent in our Christmas sky – either in the evening or the morning.

But for me it is simply a symbol – a reminder of something far more precious – the deep joy of the Christmas season where many people are inspired to think of the need for harmony and peace – and some are touched enough to act and discover once again that the only Star of Bethlehem that matters is the one in the human heart.

Playing the Star of Bethlehem game

OK – the Amateur astronomer in me can’t resit playing some games with the Starry Night Software and this idea of the planetary conjunction in 2 BCE.

Here’s one difference I can’t explain – and it may be an error of the reporter, or the astronomer – or , of course me and my software. The news article says:

Similar to the planetary alignment of the “smiley face” witnessed across the Western sky last week, he said a “beacon of light” would have been visible across the eastern dawn sky as Venus and Jupiter moved across the constellation of Leo on June 17, 2BC. [Emphasis is mine.]

My problem is this – my software puts this event in the Western, evening sky. But oh my – what a conjunction it is! In a half a century of amateur astronomy I’ve never seen such a thing – and this was particular to Bethlehem. In other sections of the world it would not have been seen quite this way. However, if someone in Bethlehem in 2 BCE had owned a small telescope – and, of course, they didn’t because the telescope was still 1,612 years in the future – this is what they would have seen!


See the two “stars” on either side of Jupiter – all on the same equatorial plane with the planet? Those are the four moons that Galileo discovered in 1610 when he first turned a telescope towards the giant planet. The smallest telescope will reveal them, but to have another whole planet in the same telescope view – that’s unusual. And to have it this close is extremely unusual. The software show the gap between them as less than 10 seconds of arc. The disc of each planet is obviously much larger than this gap.

But the reality, of course, is that the two planets are separated by at least 500 million miles. To put that in perspective at this particular instant in 2BCE Venus was about 60 million miles from Earth.

Look in your southwestern sky tonight and you’ll see a Venus about 8.5 degrees from Jupiter. There are 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute – so when you think that they were separated by less than 10 seconds in 2 BCE – well let’s see – right now they’re separated in our sky by about 30,600 seconds! In real terms right now Venus is about 87 million miles from us and Jupiter is about 539 million miles away. If someone were on Jupiter right now and trying to send a radio message to us it would take 46 minutes to get here – even though it would be traveling at the incredible speed of 186,200 miles a second!

Here’s Venus and Jupiter as they appear tonight about half an hour after Sunset.


‘The View from the Center of the Universe’ – Chapter 1

“The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Place in the Cosmos” by Joel R. Primac and Nancy Ellen Abrams – a book. Amazon | Book Website | Primack is a physicist who has done significant work in cosmology. He is married to Abrams, a lawyer and writer with wide-ranging interest and knowledge. | This entry is an experiment in personal blogging. I have read this book three times. I now wish to go through it one chapter at a time, writing a summary in my own words. I see this as primarily an exercise for me, but it may be of use to others.

Chapter 1 – Two definitions of cosmology, three of truth, a fresh perspective on how science works, and even some arguments in favor of ugly – this chapter is loaded with a lot of fundamental and challenging ideas.

One that caught me off guard was the very nature of how science works, challenging the assumption that new theories overthrow old ones in massive paradigm shifts. The authors argue this was true in a single case – the Copernican Revolution – but that this single case does not represent what is typical of science.

Until now I have fully accepted the idea of paradign shifts, but the authors argue that what science really does is encompass older theories, perhaps limiting their application, but retaining and extending them. Thus, Newtonian physics is still good on the scale of the solar system, giving essentially the same answers as relativity. But go to larger scales and relativity is needed.

This was the newest new idea for me in the chapter, but there are many other stimulating thoughts here that I have nibbled around the edges of in my own mind before discovering this book. Here’s a catalog of the concepts presented.

Science as metaphor

Science is both a consumer and creator of metaphors and is meaningless without thousands of them.

Never thought of it with that empahsis. I have always seem science as a creator of models – but that’s different. Metaphors – I love them dearly – but what role do they play in science? Well, I think what they are saying is words as basic as “truth” and “universe” have meanings beyond those used in ordinary speech, so they are, in fact, metaphors? Perhaps. I’m not cmofrtable with the use of the word metaphor to describe the fact that in science many words have special meanings beyond their street meaning.

The two cosmologies
The first defnition is that a cosmology is the world view of a particular culture – how “human life, the natural world, and God or the Gods fit together.” Scientific cosmology, however, is the branch of astrophysics that studies the origin and nature of the universe. They want to combine the definitions in this book creating a “science-baseed explanation of our human place in the universe.” They argue that this is needed – that our modern, developing global culture is adrift without it and that such a science-based cosmology is the only neutral foundation that can bring us all together. Yes!

The mdoern cosmologist has faith that “we humans can get close enough to some aspect of the real universe to uncover a secret.”

Some thing

The authors ask “is the universe something” and I go tripping off the edge of a flat Earth – here’s my aside:

We have to think cause and effect – we think every creation has to have a creator. So for all of creation we create one and call it “God” – and, of course, conveniently ignore the child’s question, “did God have a mother?” Of course she did – a mother and a father – us. We created god. So we get locked in a huge circle.

But I have to ask this question because of these few sentenes:

What scientific cosmology does is put a mental frame, so to speak, around the universe. A frame gives its contents an identity, and until something has an identity, we can’t think about it; we can’t distinguish it from what is not-it.

Whoa! That’s good – but exactly what is not-it? That is, if it’s not the universe, what is it? That’s what bothers me about the whole idea of space expanding. Other minds may feel comfortable in this frame, not me. I’m always wondering what the universe is expanding into. I know, I know – space and time are part of the creation. Right. So space is something. Some thing. Fine. And beyond it? Well, there is no beyond. See, if you sail west too far you fall off the edge of the flat Earth. OK – back, to the book. I actually like it because it stimulates so many of these little asides.

. . . the universe of modern cosmology is not just a container – it’s a dynamic, evolving being.

Being? Yes, they said “being.” Sounds like Gaia taken to the nth degree. And science puts “a mental frame” around the universe so we can distinguish it from what is not-it.

And how are we going to get people to trust this science in an age where we do battle over teaching creationism in our schools? Perhaps on of the most startling – and useful – claims of the authors is that there already is a global consensus on science, though people may not admit it.

. . . no matter where p[eople fall along apolitical or religious spectrum, and no matter what they may claim, in practice they trust their lives to airplanes, computers, and other technological products based on modern science.

That’s a simple and powerful argument that I don’t think we use often enough when faced witht he inevitable cultural clashes between science and religion.

There are also some powerful throw aways here. For example the authors ask isn’t there really a Universe that created us? And they answer in two words.

No doubt.

Now isn’t that the heart of the matter? Isn’t that the foundational statement of the new faith they appear to be proposing? That we are the children of the universe and that all scientific evidence to date clearly show this? No doubt!

Truth and theory

I think the most important thing they say about theory is this:

A scientific theory can be disproved by a single counterexample, but it can never be proved true because that would mean it couldn’t be refuted; and if it can’t be refuted, by definition it’s not a scientific theory – it’s faith, not science.

The other, of course, is that a scientific theory has to be testable.

But truth – now there I found some new ground. It doesn’t come until later in the chapter, but I think it fits here. The authors define three different kinds of truth – religious, legal, and scientific. Frankly, the one that set me thinking the most was the legal one, having just sat on a four-day trial and been the one opposing point of view on a 14-person jury! But I hadn’t thought of legal truth the way Primack and Abrams do.

Religious truth is either a quiet certainty, or a certainty so obvious that for other people to believe otherwise is an offense against God. This kind of truth is, by definition, unquestionable.

Legal truth: is a set of “facts” found to be true by a judge or jury.

The facts “found” by the judge or jury may or may not be exactly what happened; but if they arrive at their findings by following the right procedures, then those findings become officially true.

My problem with the jury I was on was that there was not enough systematic, rational discussion of the issues. There was a rambling, disjointed discussion across a table with several people talking at once – and there was a vote – and it was over. Yes, mine was a dissenting vote, but the requirement in this instance was for 12 out of 14 to agree – so it was meaningless. The procedure had been followed, the case decided, the “truth” thus determined. Until reading this book I hadn’t seen that so clearly.

Scientific truthScientific truth is never certain – always open to challenge. And I love this point, for I think it has many profound implications:

People who crave this kind of Ultimate Truth rarely consider that they themselves are at only an intermediate stage of evolution and therefore in no position to understand anything ultimately.

and what about Beauty?

This seemed to me a bit of an aside, but an interesting one, especially since one of the favored words in describing a scientific truth is frequently that it’s “elegant.” The author argues from hard experience in developing cosmological theories that stand the tests of colleagues that the elegant answer isn’t always the truth and we should be very cautious not to let the beauty of an idea prejudice us. The problem is scale.

When we extrapolate such feelings about how things work to the universe, what we are actually imagining is how the universe would work in miniature if it existed on the size scale of our experience. But miniatures never work like the real thing. A toy care doesn’t run with a combustion engine, an atom is not like the solar system, and Earth doesn’t work like the larger universe.

I have been fond for some time of asserting that science is “uncommon sense” and in developing practices that overcome our common sense misconceptions. So I was very encouraged to read that the authors feel that common sense – “despite it’s default-setting of ‘on-Earth,'” – can be educated. They even go on to raise one of my pet peeves – that we continue to speak of “sunrise” and “sunset” when we have known for nearly three centuries that these words do not accurately describe what is happening.

As a cure for this last they suggest a contemplation. I think it is good, but I think you need much more – you need real exercises associated with the contemplation and you need to repeat them often for the lesson to sink in and become part of your mental furniture.

Myth in the age of science

Ah, yet another of my pet peeves – the common use of “myth” to mean untrue when in fact myths are designed to present the most profound truths that can’t be expressed in other ways. (Sadly, from my perspective even people who accept a myth as true frequently feel their myths – the ones they grew up with – are true, but others aren’t – and they fail to understand the deeper meaning that their myths convey. They see them as literal rather than metaphorical.)

They cite Joseph Campbell’s “the Inner Reaches of Outer Space” as helping set a major theme for this book – the development of a new myth that “must demonstrate humanity’s connection to all there is, yet be consistent with all we know scientifically.”

And it is here the author’s get down to what has bugged me for several years and lead me to create a Web site called “rapt in awe” and sent me on a multi-year mission to try to develop ways of achieving this state. I was a bit shocked – a tad embarrassed, actually – to see reflections of myself in this paragraph:

By endlessly creative means, including prayer, alcohol and other drugs, meditation, music, study, contemplation, sexual practices, shamans, priests, rituals, dancing, drama, art, and now science, people have sought to connect to the invisible at a level deep enough to trigger in themselves a sense of awe.

Yep – my embarrassment comes form being crammed in with some of the methods mentioned – but I am certainly trying to use science, contemplation, and meditation with experiences of the night sky to trigger a “sense of awe.”

The authors conclude the chapter by stressing the need for more involvement – more participation – of the citizens of the world with the universe. As they say, we don’t need simply to be educated, we need “to do something with it.”

This book’s attempt at seeking meaning through history, symbols, imagery, metaphors, and contemplation, as well as straight scientific explanation, is not entirely cosmology, but perhaps is the point of cosmology.

Mumbai – running towards the explosion!

No religion which is narrow and which cannot satisfy the test of reason, will survive the coming reconstruction of society in which the values will have changed and character, not possession of wealth, title or birth will be the test of merit. – Mahatma Gadhi

In my youth religion shone brightly with non-violence. The religion of Jesus preached by my father – Jesus, who told Peter to put down his sword, who turned the other cheek, who reminded us of the commandment: “thou shalt not kill.” And the religion of Martin Luther King who lead a non-violent revolution that has born fruit this year in the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States. And the broad, encompassing faith of Mahatma Gandhi who lead all of India non-violently out of the bondage of colonialism. That was beautiful, that was different, that was then – not now.

Now the religion that walks the streets – makes the news – is the religion of hate and violence. It is not the faith of my father. Christianity in the US now spawns the ugliest of politicians and preachers, trading on fear and tribalism; generating fear’s child, hatred, and fear’s grandchild, violence. I find myself cursing Christians more often these days than blessing them, for the most noisy of them, like Bush and Palin and a slew of wealthy, tv-star preachers, feed on the anti-life forces while drawing the protective cloak of Christianity about them. And in the old worlds – the places where it all started – the most visible Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are now on the side of violence, rallying the old against the new in the name of false gods – not that the Christian god, nor Muslim god, nor Jewish god, nor Hindu gods are false – but the new face of religion hides behind these gods, denying them while claiming allegiance.

I knew that was what was at work when I first heard of the Mumbai bombings. It is confirmed today, in a wonderful piece done by an Indian/American journalism professor and writer, Suketu Mehta, in the New York Times. He has both explanations and solutions. He is the face of tomorrow turned towards yesterday in disgust and outrage.

In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.

He goes on to describe a Mumbai built on “transaction” – on money and glitter and fame and dreams – what many would call fantasies – more false gods.

Just as cinema is a mass dream of the audience, Mumbai is a mass dream of the peoples of South Asia. Bollywood movies are the most popular form of entertainment across the subcontinent. Through them, every Pakistani and Bangladeshi is familiar with the wedding-cake architecture of the Taj and the arc of the Gateway of India, symbols of the city that gives the industry its name. It is no wonder that one of the first things the Taliban did upon entering Kabul was to shut down the Bollywood video rental stores.

Oh I understand the frustration of the faithful with the shallowness of Bollywood – and Hollywood. Religion could have an answer to that – an answer that would be heard. We heard that answer half a century ago in India and the US. But now the answer is much different, much uglier. As I pondered this an image popped into my head of Snoopy doing his happy dance.


Only these Snoopy’s weren’t dancing in the joyful gleam of a child’s eyes – they were dancing like so many tin ducks in a carnival shooting gallery and the shooters were the religious fanatics in jeans and t-shirts who climbed out of the boats and methodically – with malice and forethought – slaughtered the dancers in Mumbai.

Yes, Snoopy can be simplistic and shallow, as can the fantasies of modern society – sophisticated, shallow, money-grubbing – obsessed with appearance, with sex, with fame, and with money. Snoopy, too, can turn ugly. But in the end, he is mostly harmless silliness. And in the best of times he is LIFE in huge letters, flashing across the screen in unbridled exuberance and lifting us all up. Life is a dance – a constantly moving, shifting, changing pattern – and as such a joy. Unless you fear change. Then you want to freeze it. And in the name of the Lord of the Dance, you invoke death. And that’s what these religious fanatics – these people who view themselves holier than the rest of us, who want to impose their values on us, and feel threatened by joy – these sad, sick, hateful, and violent people.

In such a world I choose life – even shallow, vain, grasping, and greedy life – over the mindless, souless automatons who would cut it down.

I like Suketu Mehta’s answer to all this. He concludes:

But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever. Dream of making a good home for all Mumbaikars, not just the denizens of $500-a-night hotel rooms. Dream not just of Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai or Shah Rukh Khan, but of clean running water, humane mass transit, better toilets, a responsive government. Make a killing not in God’s name but in the stock market, and then turn up the forbidden music and dance; work hard and party harder.

If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid?

So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.

Yes – have the courage to run towards the explosion, the courage to live!