By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer (‘23)
On December 21st, the Winter Solstice or beginning of winter, an extremely rare phenomenon occurred. Jupiter and Saturn came close enough to create a bright light in the night sky, debated to be the same star that guided the three wise men to Bethlehem, shortly before the birth of Jesus. Weather permitting, this phenomenon will be able to be bright enough to be seen at night during the late holiday season.
Current teacher in the science department at Indian Hills High School, Mr. Petherbridge, explains this event where “Jupiter and Saturn will come so close to each other as they pass through the sky, visible up to 2 hours past sunset, that the light reflected from each planet will overlap creating the appearance that both planets have combined to form one massive object in the sky. This phenomenon is called a conjunction, where two or more planets align themselves behind each other.”
The reason why this event is such a big deal is that such phenomena have not been visible from Earth in over 800 years. Astronomer Patrick Hartigan explains “It is almost like watching two runners going around a very large track, one faster than the other… Every once in a while, they line up.”
This conjunction also raises the question if this phenomenon was similar to the event during the biblical first Christmas: the Star of Bethlehem. Some scientists believe this as false, but others, like the famous German astronomer Johannes Kepler, believe that this conjunction could be an explanation for the star over Bethlehem. Author Nigel Henbest explains that “Kepler thought that the Star of Bethlehem was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.”
Many scholars over the centuries have been discussing potential causes for this event, but the truth is that it is unlikely that science will be able to unveil the truth of this ancient past. Mr. Petherbridge states that“Scientists do not always agree with each other, because there is always conflicting evidence that can be interpreted differently […] Scientists make a hypothesis using the data they have to work with. If [some] data is missing or is conflicting, then the scientist’s hypothesis may only be one explanation among many possible answers for an event like the Star of Bethlehem. [Similar to how] the belief in God sending his only begotten son to save the world from its sins is based on faith.”
Mr. Petherbridge goes on to explain how it ultimately is an individual’s decision what they believe it means. “Ultimately it is your choice to decide which story to believe. As a scientist myself, and a believer in God, I choose to believe in what story [I believe] brings the greater good to humanity.”
Despite your beliefs or whether you believe in the story of the Star of Bethlehem, you can reflect on what this phenomenon may mean to you and your family. May this event and the ongoing holiday season bring everyone joy and peace during this year’s festivities.