If you have looked to the southwest just after sunset in the past month, you probably saw two bright stars that have been moving closer to each other. They are not stars. They are the planets Jupiter and Saturn, two of the brightest objects in the sky, reaching a planetary conjunction for the winter solstice.
In their orbits around the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn appear to pass each other about every 20 years. However, the last time they appeared this close was in 1623, just 13 years after Galileo first pointed his telescope into the night sky and discovered four moons of Jupiter and saw Saturn’s rings. On December 21, those two planets will appear only one-tenth of a degree apart. That is one-fifth the diameter of the full moon.
You can bet that there will be hucksters making connections between this very unusual astronomical event and the star of Bethlehem or various political events. This conjunction is not part of a doomsday scenario but a demonstration of the accuracy of scientific observation. We can predict planetary conjunctions or solar and lunar eclipses to the minute, which is not hard to do.
When I taught earth science using the Earth Science Curriculum Project, we did a lab where the students predicted an eclipse of the Sun. They predicted when it would begin, when it would reach totality, and when it would end. I tried to make this a school-wide event, and the principal permitted me to take all 1000 students onto the school lawn to witness the eclipse. We gave the students special glasses and set up our telescopes to observe the eclipse.
We told the students what was going to happen and when it would happen. When it started, and the sky got dark, dogs began to howl. Crescents appeared on the ground under the trees as the eclipse projected through spaces in the leaves. Even though we had told the students what would happen, some kids began crying and ran back into the building in fear.
Why do people lack trust in scientific information, whether it concerns an eclipse, planetary movements, climate change, or COVID-19? Science and the Bible are friends, and God has called us to look at the creation around us and learn from it. Proverbs 8, Romans 1:19-20, and Matthew 6:25-33 all remind us of science and faith’s symbiotic relationship.
Tomorrow we will consider this planetary conjunction and the star of Bethlehem.
— John N. Clayton © 2020