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.)
star

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!

beth_2

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.

vj_1209081

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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.)

cholmes_sptzer_if11

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.”

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

moon_v_j-photo

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)

mjv_cole

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.

moon_v_j_australia

Update 1: Does seeing them together help?

mvj_us_au

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. gstone@umassd.edu)

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.
mvj_12108_sydney

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.

jupiter_moons12108

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:

vj120808

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! )

Gerry Dyck: A steady friend to some very unsteady stars

This is about a steady friend to some very unsteady stars and to appreciate it requires a tad of background, so pleas ebear with me.

Certain stars change their light output dramatically – sometimes in a steady, predictable rhythm and sometimes in sudden, unpredictable outbursts. Keeping tabs on such stars is helpful for professional astronomers, but there’s too darned many of them, so for the past century observing variable stars has been a way for amateur astronomers to make a meaningful contribution and one of the biggest contributors in the world has been an amateur from this region, Gerry Dyck. He’s made more than 150,000 such observations, putting him into the top tier of variable stars observers in the world. What’s more, I helped out with one of those observations – his first. 😉

This is an AAVSO chart of the variable Z Ursa Major. The numbers are magnitudes (brightness) given in tenths, but with no decimal point - if used it would look like another star. So "59" means magnitude 5.9.

Now making a variable star observation is, for me, a painstaking process. Just finding one of the little rascals can be a pain because while you have a good chart, you don’t know how bright the star you want to evaluate is going to be. It may be so dim you can’t see it at all! And once you’ve located the rascal, you have to be sure to find some of its steady friends – stars for whom the brightness is known and doesn’t change. Then you have to make careful comparisons, trying to get your observation to an accuracy of one-tenth of a magnitude. it’s doable. And Gerry is testimony to the fact that you can learn to do it quite quickly, especially if you have a real good memory for star fields. Not me. If i decide to check out a variable it usually means I’m going to spend about a half an hour making sure I have the right star and I have evaluated it correctly.

But it was great to hear from another amateur astronomer today who pointed me to this brief story by Gerry and I felt a tinge of accomplishment – a small tinge – when I read this part of his account:

I made my first variable star estimate in the summer of 1978. It was under the tutelage of Greg Stone of Westport, Massachusetts. He had set up his 6-inch Criterion reflector behind his house on the banks of the Westport River. After some splendid planetary views he asked me if I had every seen a variable star. His response to my negative reply was to show me Z UMA. He showed me the chart, explained the process, then said we should make independent estimates before comparing results. I was quite pleased that my 9.2 matched his 9.2 exactly.

OK – that’s about me. More of the story than I deserve, really. The rest is about Gerry and what it’s like to turn in variable star reports for 300 consecutive months. That’s a quarter century folks. The only thing I’ve done with such consistency during that time is breathe 😉 Gerry is amazing. He writes well, too, and tells his story with all due modesty. So I highly recommend that you get thee to the Skyscraper Website. I’ll just sit here and bask in a few faint rays that constitute one part in 150,000 of his glory. Gerry – thanks for the mention and I’m amazed that you can remember such details of that first observing session so long ago. You really are amazing!

There’s a longer, more detailed biography of Gerry, with pictures, here.

‘The View from the Center of the Universe’ – Introduction

“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.

Introduction

We’re out of touch with the universe and disconnected from it and this is a relatively new phenomenon. Past cultures have shared a world view – we don’t. Some of us have a world view based on religion, but science challenges that world view – has for four centuries – and leaves many of us adrift: We feel we inhabit a universe without meaning and we feel insignificant within it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

From a scientific perspective, we are central to the universe and significant. At first glance this looks like a huge step backwards to the perspective held for more than a thousand years where the Earth was at the center of a universe which clearly revolved around it. Man, in this view, is central to the Earth. But science – starting with Copernicus – describes a much different universe, starting with the Sun at the center of our solar system, not Earth. From that point onward nearly every new astronomical discovery made us look less and less significant. Our sun is a fairly ordinary star which is part of a typical galaxy of billions of stars which is, in turn, one of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe. I mean, how insignificant can you be?

Well, you could be a flea – or a bacterium, or an elementary particle.

Seriously, one of the arguments made by the authors is that we are at the center of things in several ways. We are “in the center of all possible sizes in the universe, we are made of the rarest material, and we are living at the midpoint of time for both the universe and the Earth.”

The authors derive our central position from science – not from a misguided sense of self-importance. Of the three points just made, I’m very comfortable with the first two – I’m not sure how they derive the third one about time. As I understand it, the universe has been around for about 13 billion years, but it should last much longer than that, although I don’t know how you define when it ends. But this is just the start of the case they make, so I’ll wait.

More importantly, the authors argue that we should take our scientific understanding of the cosmos as the model for our lives and religions. I’m not sure what “religions” means in this context, unless it simply means our view of ultimate reality. While I don’t like the term “religion” here, I do see that there is plenty of mystery left – plenty of undiscovered and perhaps undiscoverable – science, so maybe this is where they are going.

They say we’re the first generation who “can know what the universe may really be saying.” I’ve seen it a little differently. I think we are the universe becoming aware of itself. Hmmmm . . . is that different? well, yes. Their view makes it sound a bit like we are outside the universe looking in – as if we are a separate entity discovering the universe. I see us as inside the universe – at one with it – and becoming self-aware in much the same way an individual can become self-aware through meditation. But again, perhaps this is where they are heading – or perhaps they will convince me to modify my view.

They plan to explore several themes that are close to my heart – my own explorations – such as:

  • “There’s no way to have intuition about things one has never experienced, and most of the universe fits into that category.”
  • “It’s ironic that seeing reality takes a lot of imagination.”
  • Big questions with scientific answer: “What is the Universe made of? How did it get this way? How big is it? Where did it come from, and where is it going? Are we alone in it?”
  • And the biggest question not addressed by science which I think can be summed up by what someone once called the two most devastating words in the English language:”So what!?”
    They put the question a bit differently – “What difference does all this make for me?”

I would ask another related question – Is there a cosmic order? And if the answer is “yes,” as I suspect it is, why should there be?

One basic approach they adapt here is to try to create a new, symbolic shorthand. They argue that “symbols are far easier to remember than a long, logical argument or a mathematical equation. . . . Each of the symbols in this book represents a fundamental but incomplete insight about the universe . . . No single symbol can ever represent the universe completely. To get a sense of the whole, we have to somehow absorb the meaning of all the symbols together, and this takes imagination.”

As I said, this is my fourth time through this book. I obviously think it is good and worth the effort. But that doesn’t mean I think everything in it is correct and for me the jury is still out on the entire approach of creating these symbols. Maybe I need to make more of an effort to accept them, but something in me has rebelled against them to this point.

This concluding sentence to the introduction, though, I like:

What matters above all is not the details but the overarching realization that we are living at the center of a new universe at a pivotal time.

Yes – but again, the implied dichotomy bothers me. We are that universe. This grand separation – this implication that the universe is something we stand out of and study – bothers me. Still, this is a very important book written by people who have a far, far greater command of the science than I do.

Science and fantasy on a collision course – watch out for fireballs!

The New York Times included today this wonderful quote:

“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Gordon Kane, a theorist at the University of Michigan.

Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah – the economy. But this guy isn’t talking about the economy, he’s talking about the universe. Really, one of the reasons these are such exciting times is we are now starting to recognize that the basics are still out of our reach – way out. One of my favorite examples is the universe – see we know a heck of a lot about ordinary matter – the stuff you, me, the Earth and stars are made of – but the current scientific consensus seem to be that this stuff constitutes at most about 5 percent of the universe. What constitutes the rest? Dark matter and dark energy. Oh – that’s clear. 😉

Geeeeeeeesh. Give me a break. Our science knowledge is stupendous, but apparently we’ve only read the first five pages of the 100-page book about our universe. And keep in mind, our universe, in the minds of many who study such things, is an entity – a something – one something among many, many, many others. It’s the old Russian Easter Egg trick played on a magnificent scale – and when you get to the last tiny egg isnide the egg inside th egg you discover that the whole reductionist path was a scam – it provides some handy insights, but it doesn’t give you any ultimate answers. OK – back to the article. It actually begins like this – to put that first quote in context:

A concatenation of puzzling results from an alphabet soup of satellites and experiments has led a growing number of astronomers and physicists to suspect that they are getting signals from a shadow universe of dark matter that makes up a quarter of creation but has eluded direct detection until now.

Maybe.

“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Gordon Kane, a theorist at the University of Michigan. Physicists caution that there could still be a relatively simple astronomical explanation for the recent observations.

But the nature of this dark matter is one of the burning issues of science. Identifying it would point the way to a deeper understanding of the laws of nature and the Einsteinian dream of a unified theory of physics.

Oh – and here’s one cool example of the puzzles:

On Thursday, a team of astrophysicists working on one of the experiments reported in the journal Nature that a cosmic ray detector onboard a balloon flying around the South Pole had recorded an excess number of high-energy electrons and their antimatter opposites, positrons, sailing through local space.

The particles, they conceded, could have been created by a previously undiscovered pulsar, the magnetized spinning remnant of a supernova explosion, blasting nearby space with electric and magnetic fields. But, they say, a better and more enticing explanation for the excess is that the particles are being spit out of the fireballs created by dark matter particles colliding and annihilating one another in space.

Oh man – are you kidding me? Dark matter particles – stuff we can’t see and can’t detect with any known device – are colliding with one another and spitting out fireballs?! What seems to be colliding is science and fantasy! I love it. I’m skeptical as hell. But I love it. (Aside – if you read this article note how much of the science is being reportedon the INternet – or from emails. Interesting.)

Here’s a great one-paragraph summary of the history of dark matter:

Dark matter has teased and obsessed astronomers since the 1930s, when the Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky deduced that some invisible “missing mass” was required to supply the gravitational glue to hold clusters of galaxies together. The idea became respectable in the 1970s when Vera C. Rubin of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and her collaborators found from studying the motions of stars that most galaxies seemed to be surrounded by halos of dark matter.

Honest folks, I have some familiarity with the words from my reading of various popular books on relativity and quantum mechanics – but I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about in any real sense. I don’t speak math and my study of physics is elementary. So in the end an article like this excites my imagination, but leaves me in complete dspaire at ever understanding it. The puzzles of our complex, inter-locked, global economy are simple in comparison. And when i encounter an explanation such as the following . . .

But if he is right, Dr. Wefel said that the ATIC data favored something even more exotic than supersymmetry, namely a particle that is lost in the fifth dimension. String theory predicts that there are at least six dimensions beyond our simple grasp, wrapped up so tightly we cannot see them or park in them. A particle in one of these dimensions would not appear to us directly.

You could think of it as a hamster running around on a wheel in its cage. We cannot see the hamster or the cage, but we can sort of feel the impact of the hamster running; according to Einsteinian relativity, its momentum in the extra dimension would register as mass in our own space-time.

. . . well, i really wonder whether I’ve stumbled across some text snips from a Superman comic – or maybe the transcript of outtakes from one of the old Japanese science fiction thrillers where the hamster in the cage mutates into Hamzilla and terrorizes the beautiful lab assistant.

But no – this is the New York Times, this is serious science writing and these are serious scientists. I think. Well, not all are all that serious – at least about their rivals:

But Dr. Arkani-Hamed said that Kaluza-Klein particles would not annihilate one another at a fast enough rate to explain the strength of the ATIC signal, nor other anomalies like the microwave haze. He and his colleagues, including Dr. Weiner, Dr. Finkbeiner and Tracy Slatyer, also of Harvard, drawing on work by Matthew Strassler of Rutgers, have tried to connect all the dots with a new brand of dark matter, in which there are not only dark particles but also a “dark force” between them.

That theory was called “a delightful castle in the sky” by Dr. Kane, who said he was glad it kept Dr. Arkani-Hamed and his colleagues busy and diverted them from competing with him. Dr. Kane and his colleagues favor a 200 billion-electron-volt supersymmetric particle known as a wino as the dark matter culprit, in which case the Pamela bump would not extend to higher energies.

The conclusion of the article I do understand. . .

“With so many experiments, we will soon know so much more about all of this,” Dr. Weiner said. “In a year or two, we’ll either not be talking about this idea at all, or it will be all we’re talking about.”

So let’s wait for 2010 – someone make a note – let’s see what we’re talking about then – this, or something equivalent to Tinkerbelle’s fairy dust?

No – I don’t mean to sound that cynical – but this stuff does blow me away.