Today we celebrate Christmas, the most widely celebrated holiday in the world. Christmas has a wonderful tradition of storytelling; stories that create awe, inspire and give us a sense of belonging. It is stories like these that help us to keep culture alive. As the year comes to an end, we at AAC would like to rekindle your fascination towards science, technology and of course, astronomy with the four tales of Christmas….and astronomy.
Our first story begins with the original Christmas.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
According to Christians and the Holy Bible, three wise men from the East- Melchior, a Persian Scholar; Caspar, an Indian scholar and Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar came to visit baby Jesus upon his birth to shower him with gifts. It is said that they followed a star which led them to Bethlehem. The star which led the wise men is popularly known as the star of Bethlehem.
From stories like this, it is quite evident that the night sky and its many, many stars have shaped human history, ideas and culture for centuries. The fact that the three wise men followed a ‘star’ tells us that navigation using a star map was common at those times. Some Historians argue that stars were used for celestial navigation as early as the Bronze Age as compared to using a compass which was invented in 206 BC China. With the help of the night sky, the Polynesians could accurately locate an island in the Pacific Ocean (which is 160 million square kilometres in area). The ancient Greeks actively used to navigate the Mediterranean Sea using stars and constellations like Ursa Major. It is intriguing to think that when you look up to see the sky, you share the same feeling of wonder with people who are many millennia old.
Our second story, is a biography of a very, very famous person; a scientist to be precise. What’s his relation to Christmas?
“I accelerated the mind of mankind to a higher plane of understanding and I can calculate the weight and the size and the shape of the shadow of the mind you are standing in…”
-Epic Rap Battles of History
This man tells us about how small, trivial events can alter the way we see the world……. something as trivial as…I don’t know, an apple falling from an apple tree!!
Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas, 1642 (according to the Julien calendar). Newton made discoveries in optics, motion and mathematics. Newton theorized that white light was a composite of all colours of the spectrum, and that light was composed of particles. His momentous book on physics, Principia, contains information on nearly all of the essential concepts of physics except energy, ultimately helping him to explain the laws of motion and the theory of gravity. Along with mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Newton is credited for developing essential theories of calculus.
Newton was not only a great man of science, but was also humble. According to some historians, Newton had a cherished Pomeranian- Diamond. It is said that once ‘Diamond’ the dog collided with Newton on his table causing a lit candle to fall on his many months of work. The result? All of his written treatise burnt in front of him. His reaction? He was surprisingly understanding. He is said to have lifted his dog into his arms, exclaiming “Oh, Diamond, Diamond, little do you know the mischief you have done me!” In the spirit of Christmas, we should all aspire to be as noble as Sir Isaac Newton.
Our third story is of a major astronomical event. An event whose records date back all the way in ancient China, Babylon and other civilizations. Last time this event happened, it was 1986. Before that it occurred in 1910, 1835, 1758…… Wait, you must have guessed it by now. No? I’ll give you a hint, it’s the most famous comet you can think of………..it returns to us every 75 years or so………I’m talking about Halley’s Comet!!
In 1705, applying historical astronomy methods, Edmond Halley published Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae, which stated his belief that the comet sightings of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 were of the same comet, which he predicted would return in 1758. Halley did not live to witness the comet’s return, but when it did, the comet became generally known as Halley’s Comet.
But how is Halley’s Comet connected to Christmas? Johann “not the Nazi type” Georg Palilitzch was a German farmer and an Amateur Astronomer. On 25th December, 1758, he confirmed Edmond Halley’s predictions and history was made.
Another interesting fact connecting the 3 wise men to the Halley’s Comet is that the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone also marvelled the appearance of the comet in 1301. He depicted the Halley’s Comet as the star which guided the 3 wise men to Bethlehem, darting golden fires in the background of his fresco of The Adoration of the Magi
Our final story takes place in late 20th century, and it is about the Apollo 8 space mission to the moon. Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the United States Apollo space program, was launched on December 21, 1968, and became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, reach the Earth’s Moon, orbit it and return safely to Earth. The Apollo 8 crew never touched the moon, but circled it 10 times on Christmas Eve taking the iconic ‘Earthrise’ photo.
“Roger, please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”
Jim Lovell, Astronaut, Apollo 8 crew
They live broadcasted a Christmas message reciting the first 10 verses of Genesis (a chapter from the Holy Bible). These events had their own back story. When Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space was in space, he said that he didn’t see any God, a propaganda of the USSR government against all religious faith. Since Yuri Gagarin was adored by the common people, such a statement was influential.
So here we are, at the end. We saw how objects, stories, events, people, culture and faith are all connected with science, technology and astronomy throughout history. We at AAC would like to acknowledge the immense contributions of the fine men and women of science who made the world a better place and encourage all of you to find your inner fascination with space and the beautiful night sky.
Keep looking for newer horizons!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!