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    Re: The Star of Bethlehem and Navigation
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2009 Jan 2, 21:55 -0800

    Jim Wilson wrote:
    "In my youth, I attended a presentation at the Griffith Park Observatory in 
    Los Angeles on the Star of Bethlehem. It was held in their planetarium, and 
    they showed skies at various times. If my memory can really go back that far, 
    I think that their conclusion was that what must have been seen was a Nova of 
    some sort, since nothing else fit. They also speculated on the actual date, 
    as have many others."
    
    Griffith Observatory holds a special place in the tale of the "Star of Bethlehem" shows... 
    
    When I first worked at the Planetarium at Mystic Seaport, as a 
    teenager/college student c.1978-84, the "Star of Bethlehem" show was an 
    important Christmas tradition. It was extremely popular, and it ran all month 
    long. It was one of the few scripted shows that we presented back then, and I 
    have to say, it was fun to deliver. On "Carol Sing" day when the museum 
    grounds were open for free to the public, we would pack 'em in and seat as 
    many as six or seven hundred people (in seven or eight scheduled shows) to 
    hear the story. There were music segments with the stars and Milky Way on the 
    dome and funny black-light dioramas of various Christmas events, and wevaing 
    through it was an attempt to offer some reasonably plausible scientific 
    explanation for the Christmas Star using the relatively primitive multimedia 
    tools available at that time. It was a program very similar to other Star of 
    Bethlehem shows which had been presented at planetaria in the US for decades. 
    Enter John Mosley...
    
    John Mosley was director of programming at Griffith Observatory, which is 
    mostly a planetarium and educational museum, and not much of an observatory. 
    He decided to study the whole thing in a relatively scholarly fashion and 
    discovered that the tale, as commonly told under the dome, was really rather 
    far off. Now back then, there were no web sites, and getting the word out 
    took time. But over the course of a few years, the news got out to 
    planetarium staff across the globe, and suddenly the whole thing seemed to 
    lose its innocence. Here's one version of Mosley's analysis from c.1981: 
    http://www.ips-planetarium.org/planetarian/articles/common_errors_xmas.html 
    (well worth reading even today). Planetarium folks, as a group, tend to take 
    their science rather seriously. They want to "get it right". And so, at 
    Mystic Seaport, the script was changed; the story became less tidy and less 
    compelling, and it really wasn't as much fun anymore.
    
    Meanwhile, Christmas traditions in general have much shorter shelf lives than 
    people used to imagine, and the old "Star of Bethlehem" show began to seem a 
    bit corny and distinctly old-fashioned. But they still do tell the tale at 
    many planetaria, including at Mystic Seaport. Just two weeks ago, despite 
    being pretty darn sick, Don Treworgy presented the three Star of B shows on 
    Carol Sing Day (now the only day when the program is usually presented) to 
    more than a hundred souls. So it continues...
    
    Incidentally, the version that we ran 'pre-Mosley' proposed that the "triple 
    conjunction" of Jupiter and Saturn was the most likely astronomical 
    explanation for the Christmas star. The 'post-Mosley' version switched to the 
    very close "merging" conjunction between Venus and Jupiter. Personally, I 
    don't think the case is particularly strong for either one, so it's mostly an 
    exercise in entertainment. It gets people thinking, and it's a way to get 
    people thinking about real astronomy when they look at the winter sky.
    
    -FER
    
    
    
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