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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"The Christmas Star"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 12 December 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Every year I get a fresh round of questions about the Star of Bethlehem, the fabled celestial sign that led three wise men (read: astrologers) from Persia to a backwater town in Judea to hang out with the baby Jesus, his family, and - if manger scenes are meant to be taken literally - an assortment of farm animals.

Now I'm usually reluctant to answer this sort of question; any response I give that sits on the intersection of science and religious is often used as ammo to further one agenda or another. But in this case the answer is so deliciously unsatisfactory to all parties involved that I don't mind answering at all.

So let's get to it: looking at this story from the perspective of an objective astronomer, was there anything funky happening in the skies above the Middle East around two thousand years ago? Whatever happened had to be visible in the eastern skies from Mesopotamia and last a couple months, in order to support the wise dudes' trek.

A supernova would be a great candidate; they're sufficiently noteworthy and last several weeks. Unfortunately we don't have any records of ones appearing around that time. That doesn't rule them out, but the Chinese were fabulous notetakers of the night sky and we're pretty sure they would've caught it.

Halley's comet visited in 11 BCE, which is a tad early. Also, comets at the time were seen as Very Bad Omens - something to be avoided rather than chased. There are no convenient eclipses, either. But that's fine, since they don't last long enough anyway.

That leaves conjunctions, when planets happen to be close to each other on the sky. Those are pretty cool, and Jupiter and Venus were in conjunction in the eastern dawn sky in 3 BCE. The trouble with that is that King Herod - who the wise men visited - died in 4 BCE, so the timing is a bit off.

So there you go: something interesting did happen in the sky back then, but not quite at the right time. And that's all I can say.

"Nothing new under the sun"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 05 December 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Recently I had the privilege of giving the opening keynote address at Columbus State Community College's "We Are STEM" event, where a couple hundred high schoolers toured the campus and engaged in a bunch of STEMy demos.

As I was preparing my notes it struck me just how old STEM really is. Technologies like fire and stone tools predate homo sapiens as a species - and hence, for the curious, beat the development of art, music, and religion by a couple million years.

We've been engineers for a fantastically long time too. Take the city of Damascus, continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years. Its name is so old that we don't even know the language that it comes from or what it means. And we have evidence of abandoned settlements dotting the globe for at least the past 10,000 years.

Our prehistoric ancestors kept tally marks in bone fragments around 20,000 years ago, and as soon as agriculture became a thing the study of geometry went right along with it.

The modern conception of science is relatively young, not even 400 years old. The concept of falsifiability - a bedrock of our view of how science ought to work - was only fully developed in 1932! But the spirit of science and its open inquiry into how nature works has its roots in philosophy, which stretches back untold millennia.

STEM may be a new name, but the traditions are anything but.

"Trumpets in the sky"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 28 November 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

A couple weeks ago Laurie Miller shot me another quick email with a burning question. There's a YouTube video making the rounds purporting to show a large circular cloud formation above Jerusalem accompanied by a deep, continuous trumpet-like sound. Laurie's question: according to online articles, NASA says it's a natural thing, so what's going on?

I (painfully) read a bunch of the articles describing the video, and one amusingly ended with the rhetorical question "Is this caused by God or ET?" Well, let me toss in two more possibilities: nature, and a computer.

Regarding nature, none of the NASA quotes were attributed to a human being with a name. Just "a source at NASA", or "a NASA associate". A couple articles just quote "NASA", as if it were an entity capable of thought and commentary. Anyway, nature does make funny sounds sometimes, but I don't think that's the culprit here.

I'd also like to point out that we live in a age where almost every person on the planet carries with them a high-definition camera, and judging by Facebook and Twitter, enjoy sharing every single picture taken with those cameras. Jerusalem hosts around 800,000 such people, and this one dude was the only one to capture this strange event?

Did I mention that the dude who posted the video is a digital effects artist, whose YouTube channel features many other blends of the real and the virtual?

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