Saturday, 20 December 2014

For all the people back on earth...

In 1968 the Apollo 8 mission went into lunar orbit and its crew witnessed earthrise on Christmas eve. The pictures they took were the first images of earth, to be seen by people from space. The very next day Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman made a live Christmas Broadcast from the craft, and this is what they said:

"We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
‘And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.'"
"‘And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
‘And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
‘And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
‘And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.’"
"'And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
‘And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.'

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

What was the light in the sky?

by Dr Carol Davenport, Director of Think Physics, Northumbria University

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ Matthew 2 v 1 – 2

One suggestion for the star is that it was a comet.  Comets are giant balls of ice and rock that orbit the sun in a huge oval.  At times they are very far away from the Sun, but at other times their orbit brings them closer. As a comet approaches the Sun it starts to heat up.  The frozen ice begins to melt and is blown away from the comet by the solar wind.  This is the tail of the comet that we see from Earth. If a very bright comet approached the Sun, then it would have been visible from Earth for some time.  Ancient Chinese records have two possible sightings of comets at about the right time, one which appeared in March, 5BC and one which appeared in April, 4BC. However, in the ancient world comets were usually seem to be signs of Doom, indications that bad things were about to happen.  It is unlikely that they would be seen as heralding the birth of a King.

Ancient astronomers knew about two types of star – the fixed stars and the wandering stars. The fixed stars appeared every night and stayed in the same position compared to each other. The wandering stars moved about the sky, rising and setting in different places.  These are not actually stars, but are the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.  You can see these in the night sky without using telescopes or binoculars. The reason that the planets appear to change position in the sky is because they take different lengths of time to orbit the sun.  This means that we need to look in different directions to see them. However, the behaviour and position of the planets would have been known by the magi. 

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they say the star, they were overjoyed. Matthew 2 v 9 – 10 

Triple Conjunction
When two, or more, planets appear close together in the night sky then this is known as a conjunction. Sometimes, when the Sun, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are in a certain alignment then a Triple Conjunction can occur.  This is when the two planets appear close together in the sky three times in a short period.

The pictures show the different positions of Jupiter and Saturn on three dates in 7 BC.  This is when they were in conjunction and would be seen near to each other in the sky.  In between these dates, the planets were not visible because they were in the sky at the same time as the Sun. The quote from Matthew suggests that for a while the star wasn’t visible, but then it reappeared.  A triple conjunction would explain this. It takes the Earth one year to orbit round the sun, but it takes Jupiter twelve (earth) years, and Saturn just under 30 (earth) years to orbit the sun.  This makes a triple conjunction quite rare – they only occur once every nine hundred years. Although the triple conjunction could have been predicted, the fact that they occur so rarely would have meant that the Magi would have taken it to be a signal of something important happening.

Think Physics is a three year project based at Northumbria University.  Our aim is to show students that studying science, particularly physics, opens doors to a wide range of interesting careers. We will be working with up to 30 partner schools (pre-school to post-16) from around the North East, focussing initially mainly on Newcastle, North Tyneside, Gateshead and Durham.  We aim to interact with every child in our partner schools at least once, but hopefully more than once, during the project. As well as our partner schools, we will also be organising activities and workshops for other schools in the region. We will also be taking physics out to the wider public through collaborations between Think Physics and art galleries, festivals and other community organisations. The project is a partnership between the university and other organisations including the Institute of Physics, Kielder Observatory, Centre for Life, North Tyneside Learning Trust, Gateshead LA, Durham LA, North Tyneside LA, Durham LA, Solar Capture Technologies, and EDT. Funding for the project was given from the HEFCE catalyst fund.


Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Stars and the Angels of Christmas

'The Star of Shieldfield' featured in the 'Conjunction exhibition at the Holy Biscuit

By Dominic White

The Star of Bethlehem is one of the most powerful images of Christmas. Indeed, the stars have always fascinated and awed people. Why? The uncertainty of life makes us anxious. We can change much on the earth: flatten hills, divert rivers. But we can’t change the stars. Could it be they influence or even determine our lives? We know from science that the moon governs the earth’s tides, so it’s not impossible. And the Biblical name for the Wise Men who followed the star to Jesus is Magi: this means priests of the Zoroastrian religion, of which astrology is a key belief.

Figure 1: Astrological Clock, Chartres
Judaism and Christianity have always rejected astrology: believing that our behaviour is determined by the stars is to deny our free will and responsibility, and to deny that God answers our prayers and changes our lives. But in the Middle Ages, many churches were decorated with zodiacs (fig. 1, astrological clock, Chartres). It’s commonly thought that this was just a compromise with the local traditional cultures, but now that’s being questioned. The first Christians believed that the stars were angels, such as the seven stars which are the angels of the seven churches; and Wormwood, the star that falls to earth, is clearly Satan, the leader of the fallen angels whom the Archangel Michael and his forces cast out of heaven (Revelation 1:20, 8:10-11, 12:7-12). In the Jewish apocryphal book of Enoch, well known to the early Church, the fallen angels are stars which left the orbit God appointed for them and caused cosmic disorder. But, according to some early Christian writers, Jesus restored harmony, leading the orbits and conjunctions of the angels/stars of God, of humanity and of all creation in one great cosmic dance (as in Sandro Botticelli’s painting, fig. 2, of the Nativity).

Figure 2: 'Mystical Nativity' by Sandro Botticelli

It may be the stars/angels influence us – for good or ill – but they do not determine our lives. We speak of our “demons”, yet we can put on the armour of God to overcome the “principalities and powers… the hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Carl Jung, the father of psychotherapy, knew that faith alone was not enough to heal neurosis, and indeed neurosis is often connected with negative experience of religion. But Jung believed that only in religion could we find answers to the deepest questions and angst, and he had a special respect for Christianity and for wise Christian pastors whom he befriended. There was a convergence: and as the Christian writer Gregory of Nazianzen said, when the Magi came to Christ, they came to the end of astrology.

Dominic White’s book The Lost Knowledge of Christ: Contemporary Spiritualities, Christian Cosmology, and the Arts is due to be published in spring 2015 by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, US, and is due out next spring. See

Dominc's writing is featured in the 'Conjunction' exhibition, on show at The Holy Biscuit until 20 December 2014.

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