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.


Comet Holmes – even more a mystery

Remember Comet Holmes? If you are an amateur astronomer you undoubtedly do.

Comet Holmes among the stars of Perseus, Nov 11, 2007 - from Driftway Observatory, Westport.

Comet Holmes among the stars of Perseus, Nov 11, 2007 - from Driftway Observatory, Westport.

It was putting on a great show through late October and most of November of last year. What’s more, it was really a freakish one that surprised astronomers. Holmes is one of those “regulars” in the comet world, a familiar periodic comet that comes around every six years or so and puts on a pretty hum-drum display. It has been known for well over a century. But twice – once in November of 1892 and once last year – it suddenly exploded – no one knows why – and brightened a million fold. Now that get’s your attention.

I was thinking about it today when I stumbled across some of my pictures of it, and I wondered whether anyone had figured out yet just what caused the sudden eruption. What I found was a fairly recent (October) NASA press release that explains that it is still a puzzle – in fact, in some ways it’s now something more of a puzzle then it was last year. (Next two photos are from NASA.)


Spitzer’s infrared picture at left reveals fine dust particles that make up the outer shell, or coma, of the comet. The nucleus of the comet is within the bright whitish spot in the center, while the yellow area shows solid particles that were blown from the comet in the explosion. The comet is headed away from the sun, which lies beyond the right-hand side of the picture.(From NASA press release.)

Comet Holmes enhanced

The contrast-enhanced picture . . . shows the comet’s outer shell, and strange filaments, or streamers, of dust. The streamers and shell are a yet another mystery surrounding comet Holmes. Scientists had initially suspected that the streamers were small dust particles ejected from fragments of the nucleus, or from hyerpactive jets on the nucleus, during the October 2007 explosion. If so, both the streamers and the shell should have shifted their orientation as the comet followed its orbit around the sun. Radiation pressure from the sun should have swept the material back and away from it. But pictures of comet Holmes taken by Spitzer over time show the streamers and shell in the same configuration, and not pointing away from the sun. The observations have left astronomers stumped.(From NASA press release.)

Here's how Comet Holmes appeared to me on November 11, 2007. Like so many amateurs, I observed it many nights that fall with naked eye and various telescopes. This is simply a snapshot of a video screen taken when using a small telescope with the Color Hyper Malincam  - a special super-sensitive video camera - to observe it.

Here's how Comet Holmes appeared to me on November 11, 2007. Like so many amateurs, I observed it many nights that fall with naked eye and various telescopes. This is simply a snapshot of a video screen taken when using the Color Hyper Malincam to observe it.

Here are some more details from the NASA release:

Comet Holmes not only has unusual dusty components, it also does not look like a typical comet. According to Jeremie Vaubaillon, a colleague of Reach’s at Caltech, pictures snapped from the ground shortly after the outburst revealed streamers in the shell of dust surrounding the comet. Scientists suspect they were produced after the explosion by fragments escaping the comet’s nucleus.

In November 2007, the streamers pointed away from the sun, which seemed natural because scientists believed that radiation from the sun was pushing these fragments straight back. However, when Spitzer imaged the same streamers in March 2008, they were surprised to find them still pointing in the same direction as five months before, even though the comet had moved and sunlight was arriving from a different location. “We have never seen anything like this in a comet before. The extended shape still needs to be fully understood,” said Vaubaillon.

He notes that the shell surrounding the comet also acts peculiarly. The shape of the shell did not change as expected from November 2007 to March 2008. Vaubaillon said this is because the dust grains seen in March 2008 are relatively large, approximately one millimeter in size, and thus harder to move.

“If the shell was comprised of smaller dust grains, it would have changed as the orientation of the sun changes with time,” said Vaubaillon. “This Spitzer image is very unique. No other telescope has seen comet Holmes in this much detail, five months after the explosion.”

“Like people, all comets are a little different. We’ve been studying comets for hundreds of years — 116 years in the case of comet Holmes — but still do not really understand them,” said Reach. “However, with the Spitzer observations and data from other telescopes, we are getting closer.”

Moon, Venus, Jupiter – so what?!

Joe Carvalho captured the event nicely from his home in Fall River, MA. Venus is the brighter “star,” Jupiter the other one.

I urged folks to take a look at the unusual alignment of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon Monday night and I know several did and were suitably impressed – but I suspect a lot more reacted the same way as a good friend did – though they didn’t tell me 😉

He wrote:

I had a clear view of the event last night…. and my reaction was, “That’s interesting.” Yawn.

Essentially, he said “so what?!” OK, fair question. My immediate answer is to fall back on EInstein’s words:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

So what? From my perspective the answer is if you ask this question your eyes are closed, you’re “as good as dead.” Ouch. That seems a bit harsh. Afterall, even if you are aware of thee science involved – and this individual certainly was – it’s next to impossible to be intuitive about it. Nothing in the science fits our down-to-Earth experiences. It’s all bigger than life – much bigger. So why should looking at this alignment of lights in the sky evoke an “experience of the mysterious” and thus leave us “rapt in awe?”

And for me the first answer is because it is mysterious. Science gives us great and useful answers about what we were seeing, but there is still much to know. Essentially we are seeing clear evidence of huge masses of matter being manipulated precisely by the most fundamental, pervasive – and weakest – force in the universe, gravity. And we don’t know what the heck gravity is – we know a lot about what it does, but what it is, well, that’s another question.

And think of what we consider big – an elephant? It’s a mere flea. OK, a mountain. We like to talk about the force to move mountains as if that were impossible. Well, the smallest thing we were seeing the other night was the Moon and it is loaded with mountains. A small telescope reveals them as tiny bumps on the surface. From our vantage point on Gooseberry we were noticing that one particular bump was mostly in the dark, but it’s peak was catching the first rays of the Sun. That meant that whole mountain was a tiny, pinprick of light along the dark portion of the dividing line between light and dark on the moon. That tiny speck was a mountain. The moon is so much larger than a mountain, it’s difficult to contemplate. That’s why I fear that the “facts” tend to run off our minds like so much water off the proverbial duck’s back. They don’t penetrate. But still – they can be helpful if you try to let them sink in – especially if you do this while experiencing an event such as viewing the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus all bunched up. So let’s go down that path a little.

The moon is relatively small in comparison to Venus. Get a 2-inch ball and put it next to a basketball and you have an idea. It’s diameter is roughly one fourth that of Venus, but the volume of Venus is far, far greater, And Jupiter? Well, it’s about 10 times the diameter of Venus (or the Earth) and that means roughly 1400 times the volume! Moving mountains is child’s play compared to moving these objects and constantly changing their direction as gravity does.

And speaking of moving, as we watch these three objects slowly set, we are spinning at an incredible 800 miles an hour – here in Westport, MA – faster if you’re closer to the equator, slower if you’re nearer to one of the poles. As folks looked at the Moon or one of the planets Monday night through one of my telescopes they would invariably say, sometimes with a little shock, “it moved out.” Nope – we moved. But we’re not used to seeing the impact of our motion – or we don’t think about it much. But do think about it. You are standing on what feels like solid ground and while there may be a little wind where you are, there’s nothing like the 800 miled per hour wind you have every right to expect from being on this extremely fast merry-go-round. So that’s a tad mysterious and awesome in itself, though easily explained by science. Hey, we’re not on the Earth, we’re init! We’re in a spaceship with a wonderful shield of atmosphere around us protecting us from all sorts of harmful stuff. That’s awesome and pausing to looka t a clestial displays uch as this, bring these things to mind.

But if you watched carefully for an hour or so you would have seen that the planets were setting – as I say, it’s really us spinning – faster than the Moon. What gives? Simple. The moon is whipping around the Earth at about 2,300 miles an hour and it’s going counter-clockwise. So while our spinning motion tends to make it appear to set – it’s in effect running against the motion – sort of 10 steps backward, one forward – so it doesn’t set as quickly as the planets and stars.

Again, speaking of motion, consider that all of this scene is in motion – we’re on a rotating platform that’s also moving at about 65,000 miles an hour around the Sun and because of this our view of Venus and Jupiter changes constantly – though slowly. Then we have the motion of Venus around the Sun at roughly 75,000 miles an hour and Jupiter at a much more stately speed of about 28,000 miles an hour.

Why is Jupiter slower? More distance between it and the Sun – the center of gravity – that all-pervasive force that is the weakest of the four forces – yet strong enough to keep us all in motion as if we were rocks on a cord of unlimited strength and being whirled about a giant’s head. What if someone cut the cord/ What if someone through the gravity switch to “off?” Would we know it instantly? It take slight form the sun a full 8 minute sto reach us – but gravity seems to cover the same 93 million miles – and much greater distances – in no time. Awesome.

But I call gravity a “force.” Einstein explained it as a geometry. What is it?

How about a mystery? And when I see an unusual alignment of three of the four brightest bodies in our sky – see these three brought so close together – from our perspective here on our merry-go-round – then I am reminded of all these things and more and I am, indeed, rapt in awe.

But what if you knew nothing of this? What if you had no scientific knowledge of what you were seeing? What if you were an illiterate pagan of today or some other time? Would you feel anything? I am sure several of the people observing with me the other night did not know these things – did not need to know them to be rapt in awe.

Why? I call on Wordsworth to help me out here – to give a far simpler and more direct answer to the question “so what?” – an answer that was as true two centuries ago as it is today.

The World Is Too Much With Us; Late and Soon
by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Hmmm. . . if I have this straight, Hell already frooze over!

If I’m understanding the lead science article in the New York Times today, a lot of people will have to drop the challenge “when Hell freezes over” from their lexicon of defiant oaths. See, Hell already froze over. As a matter of fact, the whole idea that Hell should be hot may just be our ignorance of Greek mythology – but I stray from the main point of the article, which is this: Life probably began on Earth a lot earlier than has been thought.

Geologists now almost universally agree that by 4.2 billion years ago, the Earth was a pretty placid place, with both land and oceans. Instead of hellishly hot, it may have frozen over. Because the young Sun put out 30 percent less energy than it does today, temperatures on Earth might have been cold enough for parts of the surface to have been covered by expanses of ice.

Thus we have Hell freezing over – for the early Earth most certainly resembled the typical picture of Hell as a fiery place, totally inhospitable to life. It just changed much faster than we thought. And speaking of life:

In the new view of the early Earth, life could have emerged hundreds of millions of years earlier. “This means the door is open for a long, slow chemical evolution,” Dr. Mojzsis said. “The stage was set for life probably 4.4 billion years ago, but I don’t know if the actors were present.”

OK, so who cares? So what? Well I care because all of this is yet another piece of thepuzzle that is the continuing search for life elsewhere in the universe. It’s beginning to look like the formation of solar systems is a pretty typical thing, what with all the planets we’ve detected around other stars. But our methods of detection are too coarse to reveal Earth-like planets – that is, planets the size and probable composition of Earth. That should change in the next couple years. And our studies of Mars keep hinting strongly at the existence of life there at one time, but the proof is still missing. So when and under what conditions life emerged on our own planet is of significant interest for this, and I’m sure, many other reasons. Everything is connected, every piece of new knowledge helps. And with that in mind, I like the little tidbit on Hell they threw in at the end of this article – kind of shakes up traditional thinking. See this period in Earth’s history is known as the “Hadean Period,” but . . .

Dr. Mojzsis said “Hadean” might not be a misleading name for the earliest eon of Earth’s history, after all. The ancient Greek concept of hell was not one of fire and brimstone. “In Greek mythology, Hades was a dark, cold, mysterious place,” he said. “It seems to me the Hadean is living up to that moniker.”

Venus, Jupiter and Moon – why so different from Australia?


It was a stunning event and fortunately the clouds held off until we were done observing. Unfortunately, my camera battery died – I had forgotten to check – and I didn’t have a spare with me. So I only got a few shots of the early stages. Later it was a brilliant, awesome display and hopefully others in our small group had better luck with their photos. Stay tuned. I hope to update this post. These are the three brightest objects in our sky after the Sun!

Ahhh! David Cole of Westport got a much better shot that evening – here it is. (Posted 12.11.08)


And don’t forget to look tonight! No, the moon won’t be so close, but the planets still put on a great show and will for the next couple of weeks as they change position from night to night. Good way to get an intuitive understanding of why the ancients called these “planets” – a name which means “wanderers.” They’re also bright enough to see from even light-polluted suburban – and some city – skies.

Meanwhile, there are lots of good shots from Australia online here and this one was taken there by Guy Tunbridge. It’s interesting because the Australian alignment was much different than ours. Do you know why? Answer to come later, but feel free to add your explanation to the comments on this post. Note that not only is the moon oriented differently, but Venus and Jupiter have switched places.


Update 1: Does seeing them together help?


Ideally, your explanation will account for three changes:

  1. The side of the moon that is lit appears to change – or at leasr the orientation of it.
  2. In the US Jupiter is higher than Venus. In Australia this relationship is reversed.
  3. If you drew a line between Jupiter and Venus the orientation of the line would change.

If you stand on your head does it make any difference? (I no longer can do that so it’s a little hard for me to gather experimental evidence 😉

Life on a ball – so different, so good – take a look tonight!

Well, wherever you are on this wonderful ball, if you have clear skies when the sun drops below the western horizon, you’ll get a great show tonight! Actually, even if your skies aren’t clear tonight, take a look any time this week and you’ll get a good show. I plan to be out tonight with camera, binoculars, a small modern telescope, and a 200-year-old spyglass, just to see what I can see. But no optical aid is needed – this show’s for everyone and free!

This is the view from Downunder as depicted in the Sydney paper - it will look different here.

This is the view from Downunder as depicted in the Sydney paper - it will look different here.

I’m talking about the arrangement of the crescent moon and the planets Venus and Jupiter. You don’t need any optical aid for this show, but you do need a clear horizon and exactly what you see and when you see it depends on where you stand on this ball we call the Earth. Dom, my friend in Sydney, Australia, will see an astronomical smiley face, as his local newspaper told him. For us here in Westport, MA. the emoticon will be grimmer, but the show will still be spectacular! My comments from this point on all relate to what we see from Westport, MA, but will apply generally for most of the US. But again, exact times and view will differ – both because the sky is dynamic and because we live on the surface of – well, just inside the surface of, but that’s another story – a ball. I’ll explain in a moment.

Dark blue is good and the Clear Sky Clock prediction for Westport tonight looks like we'll get a cloud-free window. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Dark blue is good and the Clear Sky Clock prediction for Westport tonight looks like we'll get a cloud-free window. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

The point is, start looking for this show near your western horizon about 20 minutes after local sunset. The darker it gets, the brighter things get – but the actors also move lower in the sky – by a couple hours after sunset it will be pretty much over. The most dramatic views are at dusk and that’s the best time to take pictures. (If you get any and want to share, please email them to me – I’d love to use them here.

All three charts that follow are made from Starry Nights software screen shots.

Here’s what can be seen from various locations.mvj_12108_westport

The view from Westport is to the southwest – azimuth 208° – and at 4:45 pm the grouping will be about 18 degree’s above the horizon – roughly two fists held at arm’s length. In Sydney, Australia – see below – the show will be higher and thus last longer. It will also be closer to due west – 261° and about 33 degrees above the horizon. Which means it will be in darker skies.

The moon, a bit more than three days old, will be the brightest, shining at about magnitude -10.6. Brilliant Venus, in a gibbous phase, will be shining at -4.1, and much more distant – but far larger – Jupiter will be shining at -2. For comparison, the brightest star in that general region of the sky will be Vega, at magnitude 0. (Vega will be a bit north of west (281°) and about 54 degrees above the horizon – quite high. It will probably “come out” a bit after Jupiter.

If you use binoculars, try to find a way to hold them really steady. The old spyglass I plan to use is about the same power as binoculars and I’ll try to steady it against a telephone pole or tree. My target will be be Jupiter and it’s four Galilean Moons – the ones Galileo spotted 398 years ago. These are a challenge for binocular users. They will look like faint stars on either side of the planet and very close. My guess is with luck you’ll see three of the four – and they should be easier to see before it gets totally dark. Under a real dark sky the glare of the planet may make them more difficult to see.

Here’s how they would look in a small telescope – this image is right side up, however, and most astronomical telescopes will reverse the view. I post it here in this way because it shows the order of the moons as they would be seen in binoculars at this time. Also note how they are in a straight line pretty much in line with the planet’s equator. Do keep in mind that in binoculars the planet’s disc will barely be detectable and the moon will be dim and close. Also remember that these moons change position hour-by-hour, so this view is for 4:45 pm EST.


What if it’s cloudy? What will you see on other nights this week? Don’t despair – this is a great show for a couple of weeks and very instructive to watch the changing relationships. By tomorrow night the moon will have gotten brighter and much higher and each night it will get brighter and higher. But that’s the usual moon routine. More fun will be to watch the dance of Venus and Jupiter. Each night Venus will get higher, Jupiter lower. So a week from now Venus will have climbed a couple of degrees higher, while Jupiter will drop lower each night. So on December 8, 2008, the view from Westport at 4:45 pm will be this:


What a dance! This is a great exercise for adults and children – observing and drawing – or photographing – the changing relationships. (Hope some teachers make this an assignmennt!)

Among other things it’s a great reminder that we’re all in motion. The Earth is spinning at about 800 miles an hour (Westport) and so each night, minute by minute, the planets get closer to our horizon. We’re also traveling at about 66,000 miles an hour in our orbit around our star and that changes our relationship to the two planets. But at the same time the planets are eaCH moving – Venus in a smaller orbit, Jupiter in a much larger one. They move at different speeds. So all the relationships are changing – and, of course, the moon is moving around the Earth.

You can check out these changing relationships by looking at the wonderful online Orrery here. Taking this view of things you will see how the reality of these motions around the Sun relate to the reality of what we see in our sky. (For pictures and more discussion on this aspect, see my earlier post here.) Then if you really want to put your brain in gear, try to figure out why the moon and planets appear so different from Australia!

Wow! Isn’t it a ball living on this ball?

(Well, in this ball. I really think we should dump that idea about living “on” the Earth. The Earth, quite thankfully, includes a thin, but protective shield called the atmosphere. It’s that atmosphere that we live in – we are like crabs crawling along the surface beneath a sea of gas. But without that atmosphere we wouldn’t be here – and if it weren’t so transparent – generally – we wouldn’t see any of this great show. So we’re really on a spaceship with a great life-support system and viewing port! )

‘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.