Friday, December 23, 2011

The Manger and the Cross

I recently stumbled across the following transcript from Jack Horkheimer, the host of the show Star Gazer, a PBS series devoted to astronomy. This particular episode - number 994 - aired in December of 1996:

...I'd like to retell a story about a fascinating cosmic coincidence I discovered back in December of '87, a story many viewers ask me to retell year after year. It all happened by accident as I was searching for something unusual for my Christmas week show and strangely it all began, not with a constellation of winter, but with a constellation of summer, Cygnus the swan, a star pattern which rises in the east just after sunset in July. I think Cygnus has always enchanted me because it looks so much like its name, a graceful swan, its tail marked by one bright star, its beak by another, a star for the tip of the left wing and a star for the tip of the right wing; stars which, if we draw lines between them, represent a swan with outstretched wings. In my youth I always loved to watch Cygnus rise in the east on summer evenings and climb higher and higher until at midnight he appeared with wings outstretched across the very roof of heaven. Then after midnight he would silently descend, gliding downward to the western horizon. Now one thing that always fascinated me about Cygnus was that as he approached the western horizon he seemed to change his shape from a swan into a great cross, a star pattern early Christians called the Northern Cross [Ed. it is still known as such]. It was also interesting to me that every year during Christmas week, around 8 p.m. or so that this cross stands almost upright on the northwestern horizon. And in December of '87 as I was researching my Christmas show the little obscure star cluster called the "Bee Hive" caught my attention and jogged an old memory, for I remembered that the Bee Hive's real name is 'Praesepe' which is Latin for 'The Manger'. So I said to myself, "Wouldn't it be a nice coincidence if at Christmas time we could see both the Cross and the Manger at the same time?" Well, just for fun I picked up my star wheel and dialed in December 25th, 8 p.m. and noticed something which gave me a pleasant start . . . for indeed, there on the wheel at 8 p.m. on the 25th of December was not only the Northern Cross standing upright on the western horizon, just about to set, but directly opposite on the eastern horizon was Praesepe, the Manger, just rising. And they will always be there opposite each other in the heavens every year, every Christmas of our lives. How poetic. Indeed, in all my years as a star gazer I had never heard or read of this lovely coincidence. So, as you gaze up at the night sky this Christmas week at the setting Cross and the rising Manger, may the heavens themselves remind you of a wish that should know no religious boundaries and that is simply: Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward Men . . . a hope for all mankind of all beliefs if we remind each other to Keep Looking Up!

Isn't that a beautiful arrangement? (I cannot bring myself to call it a mere coincidence.) Unfortunately, I live in the mountains, and by the time Praesepe would be visible in our sky, the Northern Cross would already set behind the great peaks to the west, otherwise, poor astronomer that I am, I would be outside on Christmas evening, doing my level best to spot these two constellations.

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