The year 2013 is nearly over, and it has been quite a good one for me. I’ve finished the research and been awarded my PhD in physics, I’m in the prospects for a new job to continue my research in physics education, and I published my first book on the Star of Bethlehem. And that last point I have seen get around in the news, thanks to the holiday interests of many media outlets. There was coverage from the big local paper in my area, the Columbus Dispatch, in which I was interviewed by their faith and religion reporter, JoAnne Viviano. I also did a podcast interview for Exposing Pseudoastronomy with astronomer, Stuart Robbins. Another interview in Q&A format was done for the Religion News Service with Kimberly Winston. That last interview was also picked up by the Washington Post. These interviews made its way around the internet, in particular I saw Twitter accounts mention and retweet the story, and it was also posted up at the Friendly Atheist blog page. A few people there got the impression that I was suggested the Star really was an alien space craft, but hopefully most got the idea that I was skeptical of the story (the author, Paul Fidalgo of CFI, said to me on Twitter that he knew what I was going for).
So, a great success…
But I also saw that there were quite a few other posts out there that were not at all skeptical of the story. Astronomer Mark Thompson, for example, has previously written about the Star, but this month he had a short, picture-filled post of the Top 4 candidates for what the Star might have been. While the text gives a nod to the fact that there is uncertainty about the very existence of the Star, it still puts out the astronomical hypotheses for what it was; none of the four candidates include ‘fiction’. Astronomy professor, Jimmy Westlake, dismisses the supernatural and speculates on the naturalistic possibilities, never even muttering about how the story could be an invention. An amateur astronomer, Bob Mohler, also provided a few conjunction hypotheses, never providing a hint of skepticism. An astronomy popularizer in Ireland, Conor Farrell, also gives various natural explanations, though saying none can be shown to be the one and only Star, but again no mention of the possibility of story-telling. Dean Regas, an astronomer posting at the Huffington Post, agrees with me that no natural objects in the sky can fit the description of the Star, so he leaves it up to being a UFO–in that it’s unidentified, it appears to fly, and it is an object. Basically, he’s saying it was a miracle without saying it was a miracle. He also thinks it is best that it remained unexplained, that it makes the birth of Jesus more special. Hardly historical reasoning, I should say. Again, no signs of skepticism concerning the story, and if anything credulity.
Continuing on, the Miami Herald has parts of an interview with Old Earth Creationist, Hugh Ross, about the Star being a nova. Ross was also on Coast to Coast AM on the same subject, along with how astronomy fits Christianity and how the Book of Job is chuck-full of modern science. In fact, that same night there was an interview with Young-Earth Creationist, Carl Baugh, on the Internet radio show, E.P.I.C. Voyages at the Inception Radio Network. Baugh was extremely long-winded in explaining the hypothesis of Jupiter-Venus conjunctions as the Star, which I discuss at length in my critical review of the Star of Bethlehem documentary here. In fact, the creative force behind that doc, Rick Larson, had been making rounds on places such as CBN promoting his movie, and in his interview he claimed his was the best-selling DVD documentary ever. I don’t know on what metric he makes that claim, but from what I can tell on the Internet, it’s definitely popular (his website comes up in Google for ‘star of Bethlehem’ before the Wikipedia page for the same thing!).
And there there are some weirder promoters out there still. In one of the UK’s major newspapers, the Telegraph, Percy Seymour seems to be endorsing astrology as legit. For example, he cites the specious research of the astrologer, Michel Gauquelin of the so-called ‘Mars Effect‘, that those born with Jupiter in a good sector of the sky at birth (such as at the ascending point) were successful in things like politics. Supposedly then, the Magi would have known the same thing in their own research. In other words, astrology actually works, and everyone who studies it gets the same results. Seymour, who is also selling a book about his hypothesis, is going for the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions of 7 BCE. From what I can gather, Seymour has also been trying to explain astrological influences by some sort of magnetic method, perhaps reminiscent of Immanuel Velikovskey’s ideas to explain his odd planetary collisions hypothesis. While he is called a doctor and astronomer, I don’t really know what he credentials are. I also don’t know how the Telegraph was willing to print this. What are they becoming, the Daily Mail?!?
Perhaps the farthest down the rabbit hole is over at Russia Today, which has become rather notorious for sub-par journalism. This appears to be no exception, as there is a fairly long and credulous interview with Paul Hellyer, a former Canadian PM and Minister of Defense in the 1960s. Apparently in the latter part of that decade, Hellyer thought he saw a UFO, and since then he has been interested in such things. This interview was about how he knew there had been ET travelers to earth for thousands of years, how there were several species living on the Earth right now, and that the Star of Bethlehem was a God-sent UFO. In some ways, his beliefs in aliens is really old-school, since he thinks a fair number of these species are living, right now, mind you, on Venus and Mars. He also says there is a planet called “Andromedia” that is a moon of Saturn; never mind that he isn’t using astronomical language correctly, but one would think the Cassini mission, which is orbiting Saturn as we speak and has been doing so for several years now, would have found this life-bearing moon with UFOs coming and going. He also thinks some species of aliens are “Nordic blondes”, which has its antecedents in the 1950s with alleged visitations by Venusians. That was, though, before we knew Venus was the worst place to live with its crushing, acidic atmosphere with temperatures that would melt lead.
So, my point would be that there are lots of outlets that are still promoting naturalized versions of the story of the Star of Bethlehem. Though I had amazing media outreach this year, there is a major, well-established desire to get a message out there that science and religion are in harmony on this point, at least. And this is besides all of the planetarium shows around the world promoting the same thing. There are a few bits of hope that things may change, though. One article at io9, for example, did look to see if an astronomical event inspired the story, but the Star of Bethlehem was considered a myth in the same category as Atlantis. Another article (in German) also expressed skepticism. Also in other fora that are used by astronomers, there seems to be grumblings toward agreement that the story is a fiction. As the writer for my book’s foreword, Bob Berman, notes, planetarium works have known for a long time that the theories don’t really work, but they are promoted every year anyways. There is a reason the Star is known among planetarium works as the ‘SOB’. So perhaps my book will allow that silent majority to have a voice. We’ll have to see.
In the meantime, Happy New Year to all, and let 2014 be even better than the year before. I see an upward trend, and it’s not just my weight ;)