Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Only Trouble With Science Is That It Has Never Been Tried

Geocentrism lives!  And so does the oldest science, Astrology.

A friend of a friend posted on Facebook about a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that will take place on December 21.  "Conjunction" sounds like they will occupy the same spot in the sky, but in practice it means that the two planets will appears quite close to one another: "At their closest," according to this popular-science website, they’ll be only 0.1 degrees apart. That’s just 1/5 of a full moon diameter." To me, that's not completely without interest, but 1/5 of a full moon means that they'll still be distinct to the naked eye.  

The web post calls it a "glorious sight", and that Jupiter and Saturn "will look like a double planet."  I think that's a bit hyperbolic. Even if you follow the movements of the planets regularly, which I haven't done since I lived in the country fifty-some years ago, you'll be used to the fact that they seem to move close to one another from time to time: they only move within a fairly restricted band of the sky. But they won't be close to one another, any more than they will be close to the "fixed" stars of the constellations they are conventionally said to pass through.

I've watched for a few conjunctions in the past, and found them less than spectacular.  I doubt it's just me, because the articles I've found on the subject don't provide any photos of the glorious sights.  The article just linked offers this artist's conception, for example:

Needless to say, the disc of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn won't be visible to the naked eye on December 21.

Nor, it turns out, will this "great" conjunction be visible in the night sky.  According to this Boston Globe article, their closest "approach" will be at 1:20 p.m. Eastern time: you'll need "a really good pair of binoculars or a backyard telescope."  They'll still appear close to each other after sunset, but they'll drop below the horizon soon after dark.  The astronomer the Globe talked to rhapsodized that "It’s like teenagers at a high school dance: They’re getting closer and closer together.  It’s been a year of watching this, of them getting closer, and now they’re going to have a close slow dance."  No they aren't: they'll never get close enough to embrace (maybe a cosmic chaperone will be holding a ruler between them to ensure it), and you won't see any motion.  The Globe article is illustrated with NASA photos of Jupiter and Saturn and another simulation:

Nope, it isn't going to look like that.  I can't help thinking that any child, and probably many an adult, who goes out in the cold for a look at the planetary "close slow dance" is going to be disappointed.  Not the best way to interest the public in Science.

"Two thousand twenty has been a great year for astronomy and lots of really wonderful things have happened in the night — and daytime — sky," [astronomer] Oliver said. "In part, we’re so very focused on everything that has not been so great about 2020 that we’re forgetting to take in these moments that are a lot bigger."
I'm a scoffer and a skeptic and a doubter, so I will suffer whatever penalty befalls those who speak lightly of Science.  But I think this is bullshit.  I don't see what's "bigger", let alone "a lot bigger," about this conjunction.  I don't see what scientific interest it has, for example; it might interest astrologers, but if it has any more significance than a "conjunction" between a planet and a fixed star, it would be nice to know what it is. 

But the conjunction isn't going to look like this either, from the Facebook post that got me started:

It's on a Christian website, of course.  The information about the conjunction is accurate enough, though the article begins by saying falsely that Jupiter and Saturn "align into a beautiful bright star," and concludes:

Alignments like these, called "conjunctions" are not necessarily rare, but some of them are impossibly rare or only come around once in hundreds of years. Astronomers speculate that the Star of David written of in Matthew was an exceptionally rare triple conjunction between Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. One such astronomer was Johannes Kepler, one of the greatest astronomers of all time.

The secular media I looked at also hedged about the impressiveness of the alignment, though.  It's true that astronomers have speculated about possible "scientific" explanation of the star over Bethlehem (not "the Star of David") in the gospel of Matthew, and their fantasies get coverage during the holiday season.  The hard-science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a short story, "The Star," on the premise that the star over Bethlehem was a supernova.  None of these ideas work, and they probably aren't supposed to, they're just attempts to snow the rubes.  First, we do not know exactly when Jesus was born: the gospels contain two inconsistent legendary accounts, and I don't believe the authors knew when he was born either.  Second, Matthew's star could not have been a conjunction, a supernova, a comet, or any other astronomical event, because it moved through the sky to lead the Magi to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus and his parents were staying.  Attempts to provide a scientific-sounding explanation for the object are just scientists and religionists trying to mooch off each other's prestige, and do neither religion nor science any service.

Especially at a time when there's so much handwringing about the loss of Faith in Science, one would think scientists and science journalists would aim for more accuracy in their outreach to the public.  But it doesn't work that way.