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.
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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

Moon, Venus, Jupiter – so what?!

joe_mvj
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.

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 😉

Circle December 1- nice sky show – picture opportunity

Hey folks – well folks living in mid-northern latitudes roughly near mine (41.5 N) – circle Monday, December 1 on your calendar, then at 5 pm (or about half an hour after sunset) go out and take a look at the sky to the southwest. You should ses something like this.

Moon, Venus and Jupiter as depicted by Starry Nights software.

Moon, Venus and Jupiter as depicted by Starry Nights software.

You should see a beautiful crescent moon (-10.6), bunched together in a neat little triangle with brilliant Venus (-4.1)and still bright Jupiter (-2). (Of course the moon will look bigger than shown here – the size of the dots for the planets are large to represent their brightness, but they will look like very bright stars.) Should make an easy shot for your digital camera as well – give it a try. The key to such shots is to frame the sky with some nice trees, buildings, or whatever. Take a look at what Hank Walter did here, for example.

hw_venus_j2

But even if you don’t take a picture, having two bright planets join the 3-day-old moon is just fun to see – and pretty. To understand how the planets end up aligned this way, take a look at this earlier post. The moon gets added to the mix because right ont his night it’s lined up between us and the Sun and quite close to the Sun. I checked this in Starry Nights software – the objects are all less than 3 degrees from one another which means you should be able to cover them with your fist held at arms length. (They’ll be roughly two fists above the horizon at 5 pm so you need a clean southwestern horizon.)

If the weather is scrummy (that’s a scientific term) then try Sunday night or Tuesday night – the moon will be much lower Sunday night, and significantly higher Tuesday night – but still fit in the picture.

If anyone gets a picture I’d love to see it and would be happy to post it here.