history

Star of Bethlehem by Nathalie Ouellette

A depiction of the Star of Bethlehem. Image credit:  Garrett W.  /  CC BY

A depiction of the Star of Bethlehem. Image credit: Garrett W. / CC BY

Right around Christmas time, a lot of people come up to astronomers and ask what the Star of Bethlehem could have been. This “star”, also called the Christmas Star, is said to have appeared in the sky in time to announce the birth of Jesus Christ to the Three Wise Men, and would have lead them to Bethlehem, to honour the newborn. Modern astronomers are now trying to figure out what astronomical event might have appeared in the skies all those years ago as the Star of Bethlehem. In order to do that, it is first necessary to try and pin down the actual birthdate of Jesus. Historical clues recovered throughout many different sources seem to indicate that he may have actually been born around the year 5 B.C. Furthermore, some believe the Star of Bethlehem did not appear right when he was born, but perhaps a year or even more later. This wide range of years have left us with quite a few theories as to the real identity of the Christmas Star:

1) A series of two or more planets in near alignment in the sky may have been seen as a single very bright star. Using known planetary orbits, we are finding it difficult to find such an alignment to have occurred at the right time, unfortunately.

2) Some Chinese astronomers recorded a new star born from a supernova that was highly visible for 70 days in the constellation of Capricorn around 5 B.C. However, the religious scripts state that the Christmas Star moved from East to South over the course of many months, which cannot be so easily conciliated with a supernova progenitor.

3) A comet might have been the culprit, but they were typically seen as bad omens. Furthermore, we cannot find any other mention of such a noteworthy object in the literature.

4) Jupiter, a planet that can indeed be very bright in the sky, may have seemed near immobile due to it being at the end of one of its retrograde loops.

The verdict is still out as to what the Star of Bethlehem truly was. Despite all our technological advances, it may be difficult to backtrack to a definitive answer so many years in the past.

Merry Christmas!

2012 Apocalypse via the Maya Calendar by Nathalie Ouellette

An engraved Mayan calendar. Image credit:  Kim Alaniz  /  CC BY .

An engraved Mayan calendar. Image credit: Kim Alaniz / CC BY.

Next up in our apocalyptic adventure is a more general overview of why people have been freaking out in the last little while. With Y2K coming and going with no end of the world insight (well, I guess all this pollution isn’t that great, but I digress), people have been seeking some other importnt and alarming transition point in some calendar. When one was not found within our own Gregorian calendar, our prayers were answered when we delved in the ancient Maya calendar! 

Whereas our calendar is split up into weeks, months, years, centuries and millennia, the Mayans – and the Olmecs before them – split their calendar into different units.

1 day is a Kin

20 Kins is a Uinal

18 Uinals is a Tun (approximately a solar year)

20 Tun is a Ka'tun

20 Ka'tun is a Bak'tun

20 Bak'tun is a Pictun

[…]

All the way to 1 Alautun, which is 23,040,000,000 days, or Kins.

We are currently at the end of the 12th bak'tun since the beginning of our current age. This December 21st 2012 will be the moment when we enter the 13th bak'tun, denoted in the Long Count calendar as 13.0.0.0.0. There is very little evidence in the study of historic artifacts that would lead us to believe that a cataclysmic event is inevitable at this date. In fact, the Maya celebrated the end of each cycle, and welcomed the new bak'tun as a chance for renewal, much like we celebrate the end of every year by dropping giant globs of lightbulbs onto buildings, awkwardly kissing whomever happens to be closest to us at the time and counting our blessings.

The Maya have survived and celebrated previous changes of bak'tun. In their writings, they even speak of events that happen in their mythology far beyond December 21st 2012. There’s no reason to believe they knew something we don’t about some impending doom waiting for us at the end of this year. Breathe easy for now, and start saving your money for next Christmas, because it looks like we won’t be saved from the holiday gift giving season just yet!

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is currently hosting a great temporary exhibit on The Maya Civilisation until April 9th. If you’re heading out there, you should definitely check it out! If you’d rather not leave your computer, but are still interested in learning more on the Maya calendar, read up on it right here, on my personal favourite resource: Wikipedia.