The Nativity Magi through the Prism of Astronomy

magi-nativity-03

Part of human history’s story is how the faculties of scientific practice search for rational explanations to events depicted in the world’s religions.  The most famous is the great ancient flood.  As a matter of faith or not, people in every corner of Earth yearn for grounded reasons to understand their relationship with the Divine.  And from the life of Jesus Christ, there is no greater curiosity from The Gospel than the account of the Three Wise Men.

Within the entire breadth of the Bible, the story of the Magi is a strong candidate for interpretation and discussion by both theologians and scientists.  History is documented through the chronologies of the Israeli and Judean kings, but the Magi’s travels according to a potential astronomical event is too intriguing not to be pondered by the curious mind.

From Matthew 2:1-2,7,9,10:

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.

After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star”

If one were to look for a purely scientific explanation, the Magi discovered an astronomical event, their interpretation of which caused them to follow it towards the west.  Travelling likely for some time, weeks or months, eventually the star arrived at an obvious destination in the relative night sky, perhaps closing in towards Zenith around midnight.  By that time, the Magi had reach Jerusalem.  In their onward travel towards Bethlehem, the star finally did reach Zenith at the proper evening time.

Common explanations for what the star really was are:

  • Exploding supernova
  • Very bright comet
  • Unique planetary alignment
  • Extraordinary upper atmosphere event
  • An alien spacecraft

Even if you subscribe to one or all of these (even the last one), there will never be a means to prove even a remote proximity to an explanation.  The most obvious trouble is that we don’t know both the exact year and time of year that Jesus was born.  He was likely born a few years before 1 Anno Domini, due to the system’s inventor, a 6th-century monk, getting the years slightly wrong.  As for the exact date, the Bible gives no reference, with December 25th eventually being more a Roman imperial choice aligning with a pagan feast day.

So if we don’t know the year and day or Christ’s birth, how can we ever hope to align what appears to be an extremely specific astronomical event to it?  For the sake of argument, if we knew definitively the real date and year of Christmas, astronomers would have enough data to make highly plausible hypotheses for what the Magi’s star truly was.

As for my own understanding, going back to my time in the seminary, I believe the stories of the Nativity, found only the Gospels according to Luke and Mathew, were intended not as a historical accounts but allegorical links to the Old Testament for their contemporary readers to understand that Jesus was the Messiah.  The story of the Magi itself is only found in Matthew, with no allusions to it in any of the other three Gospel accounts.

Nativity accounts aside, the true celebration of Christmas is not about magi or shepherds or mangers or even a birth, but the coming of Christ into our world.  For, “all things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:3)

Advertisements

Expectations through the Telescope

orion-nebula-02

Astrophotography is the single largest buzzkill to the hobbies of astronomy and stargazing.

You look up into the night sky.  You see dozens to thousands of stars, depending on your area’s light pollution.  You look at some of these objects through, say, binoculars.  They will appear a little larger, but mostly you will be frustrated by the jittery view since you cannot steady your binoculars.  You may also look through a telescope, and if the conditions are ideal and you can pinpoint a known object, like a planet, you will see…something very, very small.

You look at a well-known deep sky object like the Orion Nebula.  Do you except to see something colorful and majestic?  No matter the aperture of your telescope or location on Earth, what you will see with the naked eye amounts to a mostly monochrome view of the major structural components for this famous nebula.

So why, you may ask, is there such a gap between the grandiose pictures you see in textbooks and on the Internet and what you see live through your humble telescope?

The answer is twofold.  First, because all these celestial objects are really far away, the light that we get from them is really, really faint.  You can understand this in relative proximity.  First, consider the Moon.  At a little over 200,000 miles away, it is like a guy sharing the same couch with you as far as the universe is concerned.  It does not take much effort to see great views of the Moon unaided, with binoculars, or a telescope.  It fact, there is so much light coming from the Moon, you are probably better off with a Moon filter/dimmer on a telescope to reduce the amount of light in order to ascertain better contrast.

Now consider the planets.  They are tens and hundreds of millions of miles away, several orders of magnitude farther that the Moon.  Their light is far fainter than the Moon’s, not to mention appearing far smaller.  The unaided eye and most binoculars will see Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as bright points of light, resembling stars.  Through a telescope and depending on aperture and conditions, you should be able to make out features on these planets (minus Venus which will be washed out by the Sun’s brightness).  It will not all come at once and practice viewing these objects will train your eye to see more detail.

Now think of deep sky objects.  The closest of these objects are measure in thousands of light years.  The farthest, galaxies, are hundred of millions of light years and much more away.  That we get any light from their drops of photons reaching Earth and punching through her atmosphere is remarkable in its own right.  Still, the photons are limited in availability, and our eyes, untrained to see objects trillions of miles away, only make out the weakest of details.

The second reason for image disparity is astrophotophy post-processing.  The spectacular images we see of nebulae and galaxies are the results of very long telescope camera exposures on smooth equatorial mounts (which align to the rotation of the earth) followed by a lot of image processing with both dedicated and general photography computer programs.  The idea is that long exposures will capture a lot more photons than we can see at once, and you then clean up the resulting images, filled with all those extras photons, in post-processing.

This Youtube demonstration shows how one astrophotographer made an image of the Andromeda Galaxy go from bland to professionally stunning:

Despite the wonders of post-processing, I think these end images, without the proper understanding of how they are made, do a disservice to the beginning astronomer.  A beginner will be immediately disappointed that he cannot see the Orion Nebula is all its true (post-processed) glory.  Worse, the beginner astronomy may take the folly step of wanting to jump straight into astrophotophy, spending thousands of dollars on equipment, which still will not yield good results if you do not understand how to use them.

Based on my own experience this past year, I believe the best approach for the beginner astronomer is to take stargazing step-by-step:

  1. Learn how to track the phases of the Moon
  2. Learn the paths of the planets (which follow the same general path as the Sun)
  3. Learn about the major stars and constellations, and how to track them season to season
  4. Get a good pair of binoculars – you’ll be amazed at how many more stars you can see through their clear wide-field views
  5. Once you feel comfortable with the above tasks, then you should investigate getting yourself a good telescope!
  6. Whether you get a refractor, reflector, or some variation, learn how to use your telescope to get the most out of it.  This will take time.
  7. Later on, once you are comfortable with your telescope, you may begin to explore astophotography