The story of the birth of Jesus has several elements that have become familiar over time — the virgin great with child, no room at the inn, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. But none stands out quite so literally as the shining Star of Bethlehem, which, according to scripture, was key in both alerting and guiding the wise men to the Christ child’s location. Using stars as a compass is a foreign concept in today’s age of GPS and Google maps, but it was second nature in Biblical times. And it will be the focus of discussion at the “Star of Bethlehem Space Safari” Dec. 14 in the JSU Planetarium.
“I’m taking the premise that it was a real astrological phenomenon,” says physics and astronomy professor Dr. Laura Weinkauf, who runs the planetarium and will be leading the event. “The question is, what might it have been, then? Could it have been a supernova, the explosion of a giant star, or could it have been a meteor shower?”
The mystery that surrounds the guiding light — aside from what’s in scripture, there’s no full description of its history, size or shape, just its location — has admittedly left astronomers baffled.
“There’s even been people who think that ‘star’ may have been a mistranslation, a misinterpretation. It might have been signs in the heavens instead of a literal star,” Weinkauf says. “There’s been a lot of speculation over the years, and nobody really knows for sure. But it gives us a chance to think about what kinds of things could it have been.”
In addition to splitting stars and exploring the science behind the nativity story, the workshop offers attendees the opportunity to learn more about the basic elements of the sky, including supernovas, comets and meteor showers. The planetarium’s projector system has the ability to find any place and time, both BC and AD, and simulate exactly what was twinkling above in the night sky at that time.
“A lot of the advisors to the kings were looking at the sky because the culture at the time said that the stars influenced you,” says Weinkauf. “That was the world they lived in.”
According to Weinkauf, the recent dip in temperature makes this an ideal time for a little stargazing: “Winter’s the best time to see bright stars, and those are visible even from a fairly light-polluted sky.”
She advises first-timers to dress warmly and give their eyes time to adjust.
“Unlike skiing or raking leaves, astronomy is not very aerobic. When you go outside, your pupils dilate so you can see more, but it takes awhile for that process to happen.”
It begs the question, if 2,000 years later — in a world of skyscrapers and bright lights — would the wise men still be able to find Christ by looking to the sky for guidance. Possibly, says Weinkauf. But they’d do better west of the Mississippi.
“They’ve taken pictures of the night sky from space and you can see just about the whole eastern half of the U.S. — it just glows,” she says. “Although there are dark areas. You don’t have to go too far, I want to say maybe five miles out of Jacksonville you can get some really quite dark skies.”
IF YOU GO…
WHAT: Star of Bethlehem Space Safari, part of the “Second Saturday Space Safari” series at JSU
WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 14, at 4 and 5 p.m.
WHERE: JSU Planetarium (3rd floor Martin Hall)
COST: Adults $5, children and students $2; pre-registration encouraged for groups
INFO: Call 256-782-8010 for reservations