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Appendix to William Fischer Article
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Science and Religion in the Planetarium

APPENDIX

 

William J. Fischer

Department of Astronomy

University of Massachusetts

710 N. Pleasant St.

Amherst, Massachusetts 01003

wfischer@nova.astro.umass.edu

[This article -- minus the text of the responses-- originally appeared in the Planetarian, the quarterly journal of the International Planetarium Society, September 2002. See the copyright notice at the end.]

 

Appendix

This is the text of the message that was posted to the Dome-L electronic mailing list on April 22, 2001:

Hi,

I've been working as a student employee at Ritter Planetarium on the campus of the University of Toledo for over three years now. It's my last semester before I graduate, and I'm taking a seminar on science and religion in America. For my final project in that class, I'm going to be doing a presentation on religion in the planetarium industry. To that end, I'm asking for some input from Dome-L readers. Please consider answering as many of the following questions as your time allows:

The first question appeared in the Planetarian in 1993, in an article by Richard H. Shores. I'm asking it again, as it was originally worded, to increase my "sample size," and also to see whether opinions have changed in the past eight years.

1. Sometimes, members of the audience bring up religious explanations for astronomical topics such as "God did it," for the rising and setting of the sun, or they will make a comment after a show that they disagree with a particular area of your presentation because it goes against their religious beliefs. How do you handle such comments without alienating the responding individual?

The next few questions deal with Star of Bethlehem shows:

2. If you include the Star of Bethlehem in the programs you present during the holiday season, how do you address the topic?

3. What factors were taken into consideration in making the above decision?

4. Is your planetarium considered a private or a public institution?

Finally, an administrative question:

5. May I quote you directly in my presentation? If this goes well, I may submit a paper to the Planetarian based on my results.

Thank you for your time. It will be most helpful if I have responses by Sunday, April 29.

Responses

 

The organization is:

1. People who responded. Everyone has a letter, and their particular responses later on all have the same letter in front.

2. Answers to question 1, answers to question 2, and so on

3. Two more respondents who responded in more of a free-form style.

--------------------

Information on the respondents

A.      Jonathan Ausubel, Ph.D.

         Associate Professor of English

         Director of the Daniel B. Milliken Planetarium

         Chaffey College

         Rancho Cucamonga, CA

 

B.      David G. Totzke

         Planetarium Astronomer

         County College of Morris

         Randolph, NJ

 

C.      Mark Provence

         Chabot Space and Science Center

         Oakland, CA

 

D.      Mickey Schmidt

         Director, USAF Academy Center for Educational Multimedia

         Colorado Springs, CO

 

E.      Geoff Skelton

         Programs Supervisor

         Fiske Planetarium

         University of Colorado

         Boulder, CO

 

F.      Michael Miller

         Glenfield Planetarium

         Montclair, NJ

 

G.      Mike Murray - Assistant Director

         Montana Space Grant Consortium

         Dept. of Physics, Montana State University

         Bozeman, MT

 

H.      Aaron Guzman

         Planetarium Coordinator

         Don Harrington Discovery Center

         Amarillo, TX

 

I.       Arnie Nelson

         Pensacola, FL

 

J.       Danny Rosen

         Western Sky Planetarium

         Fruita, CO

 

K.      Sally Goff

         Assistant Producer/Education Coordinator

         Davis Planetarium

         Maryland Science Center

         Baltimore, MD

 

L.      J. Scott Miller

         Program Coordinator

         Gheens Hall of Science and Rauch Planetarium

         University of Louisville

         Louisville, KY

 

M.      Joe M. Guenter

         Pomeroy Planetarium

         University of Arkansas

         Monticello, AR

 

Answers to question 1

 

A. Generally, I respond that, while such ideas are worthy and important, science is not equipped to take them up. In other words, I respectfully avoid discussion, telling patrons that these are questions they might better discuss with their religious leaders.

 

B. At Griffith and MOSI the individual presenter can side step the issue and claim the organization does not allow us to discuss such issues. If the person insists then we can talk after the show. (Note: I did not do shows at Griffith only presentations in the Halls of Science.) At this time I try to explain to the person that science explains, "what" happened and how we can use this to understand what will happen in the future. Science does not explain "why" something happened from a theological point of view. Depending on the persons demeanor, I might try to point out that the Hebrew word which is translated into "day" in Genesis is really "time period" and that we speak of "Moses day" or "Shakespeare's day" and we are talking about a period of many years and not 24 hours. If the person seems to be receptive at this point I might also point out that the explanation in the Bible was given to people who could just barely read and much like explanations to young children cannot cover things in detail, the explanations in the Bible were presented in a manner understandable to the people at the time.

 

My first presentation at the CCM Planetarium was for a Hebrew school that does a Havdala (?spelling?) once a year and the request was for me to explain the scientific view of things talked about in the Bible and in Jewish Lore.

 

I recently did a school show for a Christian Academy, which consisted of Solar System, Constellations and Stars. I simply edited the program to remove anything that might seem inappropriate. Most of the show deals with the Planets and recent scientific discoveries. The school sent information about the curriculum that mentioned that Earth was the only place God put "intelligent life," which allowed for a statement about the idea that algae, or some other simple life form could be on Europa.

 

C. First off, I had a religion class when I was in college. A miracle is defined not so much as WHAT happens, but WHEN it happens. Many of the miracles in the old testament can be explained by some specific physical event that occurred around or in the earth. In 1910 Halley's comet went so close to the earth that we passed through the tail of the comet. It triggered a series of events in the atmosphere and on the surface that closely mimicked the main plagues in Egypt as recorded in Exodus. It was noted so strongly, that in the movie "Ten Commandments" Pharaoh's early arguments AGAINST the existence of God pointed to a comet that was causing these events. Typical Hollywood. Ancient peoples were not that sophisticated in attributing a comet to events like blood-red water to cometary dust! The parting of the Red Sea is being discussed in some circles that a huge seismic event occurred in the sea and the withdrawing of the water was a prelude to a Tsunami. The list goes on. There are other events that are clearly super-natural like the killing of the first-born Egyptians, the column of fire at night - the cloud by day, etc.

 

The point I would like to make on this topic is something I read from a Sci-Fi novel - The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever. All through the series, Thomas is drawn from our world to a realm called "The Land" to do battle with evil fostered by "Lord Foul" (Satan), because he has an object that is the corner-stone to all creation called white gold. He has the ability to use this white gold in a super-powerful fashion to battle back evil. He is frustrated by the fact that God just simply does not just force his way in and put everything back by brute force - after all he IS all-powerful. God's answer is something like this - The creation that he put Lord Foul in is very delicate. It is like a very thin and fragile crystal sculpture. If he did just simply smash up Lord Foul, he would then destroy his creation in the process. So, he must work within the rules of his own creation- justifying his selecting Thomas to do things, but gave him free-will to do what Thomas thought was right. If creation was destroyed, Lord Foul would escape and win.

 

First off, in our real world, I do not think that God is "handicapped", but the analogy still works. If God decided that our moon was needed to orbit some other planet, and he "grabbed" it and moved it half way across the galaxy, do you know what problems would occur from such an abrupt event? Papers have been written along these lines on what would happen if the moon was abruptly moved, destroyed, whatever. Huge problems. God is the God of nature, He created the laws of nature and physics that whether we like it or not, we are force to obey (gravity, light, heat, etc.). When the time is right for a supernatural event that will not disrupt nature, he does it. Knowing that He works within the rules of what he creates makes his miracles more miraculous. To think that God put a comet in motion, who knows how far back in time, to be at the precise spot AND TIME it had to be to trigger the plagues in Egypt is staggering. That makes the plagues look to me even MORE miraculous. That takes more skill and wisdom and knowledge than just ramming his fist into the ground to cause an earthquake. It is kind of like the Ziggy cartoon you see where God brings His hand out of the sky, points his index finger and places it at the end of Ziggy's nose and says in the most ornate and impressive script, "YOU!" God usually does not work like THAT.

 

D. It depends upon the situation. I have had individuals who are merely trying to state their opinion with the simple statement that I think God did it etc. and lets it go at that. Some will try to "witness" to the whole audience that their opinion is correct and all that they have heard in the show is rubbish. I give some evidence to support the scientific claim but if they persist I come down pretty hard on the latter case. The presentation they are seeing is an explanation of recent or current scientific evidence supporting the ideas in question. It is NOT a forum for discussing the merits of someone's individual faith based belief for which there is not proof nor scientific tests capable of distinguishing between the various faiths. Then we go on to other questions. The most often posed question posed by the very young is "Who made the planets or stars, etc. Then I usually preface my answer that many groups of people around the world have attempted to answer this question by applying their own personal religious explanations. Usually these groups disagree among themselves about the facts and timing of the event. Scientists who may or may not be religious try to look at those questions that can be tested and observed. Then is conclude, this is what most scientists are now saying about the origins of ....

 

E. If the group is old enough to understand, say Middle School or above, I will say that "God did it" is a good explanation that picks up after science has left off. Some people are completely satisfied with saying 'God did it', and for those people science doesn't have much to offer." If they seem to be receptive I might even offer some advice. "Don't try to use that as an excuse to not do your homework, though."

 

For after show apologies, which are rare in my experience, typically, I use a statement like: "I'm sorry, but our programs are focused on the scientific method and we try to remain as neutral on religion or philosophy as possible while still explaining the scientific theories involved."

 

F. people can get offended easily. People can be offended if you ridicule astrology - is astrology a belief? a religion? It IS important from a scientific viewpoint to clarify (i.e. debunk) the errors of religion, just as one would debunk the errors of astrology. It is therefore important to do it without offending or creating a jihad against the script writer.

 

Also, let me say that a holistic religious philosophy, such as those associated with the Catholic religion, are highly compatible with scientific findings. The fact that most scientists, and therefore I would presume, most Planetarians, (though very nice people) are irreligious, atheistic, or at best agnostic (a cop out, generally) makes it doubly difficult to deal properly with the surge of fundamentalist religiosity so present nowadays.

 

I have found that the best approach to this problem to include all (agreed) scientific findings in a subset of opinions that are within the set of acceptable opinions about God. So, God imbued creation with what we call evolution, etc... This way science is preserved and God reigns supreme.

 

G. I usually start out by saying that "We're not disputing that -- religion is a personal issue, and it's not our place to tell people what kind of religious beliefs they should have. We maintain the free rights of the individual to pursue their own religion, and we're here to show how science is revealing wonderous new things about the universe god gave us." Of course this needs to be taylored to the extremes you'll get in people's values -- the phrase "...the universe god gave us" may imply that you personally believe in god, which frankly is what most people are trying to find out. If a planetarium presenter finds that uncomfortable (or inappropriate), then they can certainly use other words. This is just one possible example for responding to what I would call a "religious extremist."

 

To continue, some other phrases I like to use are: "Our ancestors didn't have the tools to see all the details that we're acquiring today -- they explained the world in ways that made sense to their listeners." Or "We're a science museum, and that means we're qualified to answer questions about 'what' and 'how', not 'who' and 'why'. Philosophical questions are a personal issue and require a different kind of specialist..."

 

H. The only time I get the "God did it," reply is from children and I try to explain the science behind a phenomenon in such a way that inspires critical thinking and they come to their own conclusions about how it happens. Also I noticed people are more willing to accept secular explanations to objects not on Earth. For instance, for stellar and planetary formation, I describe the effects of gravity in attracting bodies and meteoric bombardment increasing the mass of objects over time. If I do not mention Earth, people are more willing to accept the logic trail and eventually they will realize the same process also occurs on Earth.

 

I. The way questions like this are answered without an evangelistic zeal that does not affect in the least someone's religious beliefs but does turn them against science is very important. I see a widening chasm between science and religious believers of which the growth of private schools and home schooling is a symptom. It we attack a question as though we were in a dorm room debate the person attacked will simply not come to the planetarium again, nor will their friends who will listen to them.

 

First may I suggest that while we may have a question about "God did it" that we know for sure that "rising and setting of the sun" is wrong! (sorry I could not resist that. It's the teacher in me).

 

May I suggest saying that science can observe and work from what we see, but if they ask their parents or people who study God they will probably tell about faith and things that can not be a part of science.

 

J. I briefly and as simply as possible explain that science and religion are two different things. Science tries to explain how the world works based upon factual information gathered by making observations with our senses. As we gain new information we (science) are open to changing our story. Science can not and does not try to explain why we are here or where we are going next - that is (may be) the domain of religion.

 

K. I had a group from a Christian school attending one of our shows that deals with stellar evolution. It was a middle-school aged group. In reference to the process of the sun running out of fuel and becoming a red giant and a planetary nebula, one student asked something to the effect of "What happens if Jesus comes back before that happens?" My immediate response was "I cannot answer that." I hadn't ever thought about what I would say under those circumstances, that is just what came off the top of my head. In retrospect, I figure it has two meanings. The first is the fact that it's not my place to bring the topic of religion into our school and public programs. But I also figure that some people might take it as "that is something I cannot predict," and they probably wouldn't feel alienated by that response. I did 't get any feedback after my response, so I don't know what anyone thought of it.

 

L. I point out to them that as a science institution, we deal with scientific explanations of such phenomena. To do less would be to shirk our responsibility.

 

M. I will either say that their ideas are fine or that God established his natural laws and usually works through them. It actually depends upon whether they actually are interested in knowing something or just want to express their beliefs.

 

 

Answers to question 2

 

A. As a kind of mystery: what astronomical/astrological event jives with the Bible text.

 

B. The Saunders Planetarium used a canned show, which covered the festival of lights that occur during the winter solstice. I believe it was from Lock Ness Productions. The show was very careful to explain that this was just one explanation and not the only one available for the Star of Bethlehem. No one seemed to object during these shows.

 

C. I worked at Riverside Community College in the Planetarium and at Chaffey College. I did my Christmas Star show the same way in both places. I discussed the Christmas star as one of the symbols of Christmas. I tried to explain where many of our symbols came from, and then addressed the Christmas star in the same fashion. If it was a physical object, what did it do, how did it behave, now let's look at what it could not be, then discuss what it could be. I am in the 7 BC camp for the Christmas star. David Hughes wrote a book which even tackles the other theories on other timeframes and explains why it does not work. I believe his work to be the most complete and thorough of ANY work I have read on the Christmas Star. All other works make the errors he predicted. But, am I dogmatically stubborn about my position? NO! Just when we think we have all the facts, new ones show up which show us wrong. I close the show on saying it is out "best guess" on what the Christmas star is and I truly believe that. It is just a guess. Theories are nothing more that very educated "guesses". It turns my stomach when someone takes a scientific theory, and makes it into a dogmatic law with no regard for the facts or acknowledges the idea that a theory IS nothing more than an educated guess.

 

D. Over the years we have moved away from the Star of Bethlehem (SOB) program that was more akin to a religious service with scripture quoting and hymns playing as background to a presentation that includes may other groups' winter solstice and/or celebrations associated with the holiday seasons. Even our current SOB style program has a minimal amount of text from Matthew regarding the star and the wise men. Of next Christmas program will have even less religious content but more cultural practices related to the season late Dec to mid Jan.

 

E. We present the "Season of Light" a.k.a "'Tis the Season" program from Loch Ness Productions. In that show the miraculous star is acknowledged as being beyond scientific understanding. The various sky phenomena we do explain are described as being possibilities.

 

F. Well I did a show on that for several years in a public planetarium. What keeps it from being offensive is its speculative nature - rather than just saying the triple planetary conjunction WAS the star of Bethlehem. Add to that an interpretation of the scripture that is not Literalistic (while still using the literal wording) i.e. a more Catholic interpretive method) - even Orthodox Jews did not find it offensive, but interesting.

 

In fact, I developed a SPECIFICALLY religious program which is a BIG HIT. Jewish skylore programming in celebration of the conclusion of the sabbath (great connection between Saturn as the seventh planet -Sun, moon, and five visible, and Sabbath as the seventh day! - almost identical Hebrew words.) Jewish communities throughout this REGION of the state have come to this program, some more than once.

 

Certain Native American Tales are overtly religious with FATHER SKY as a creative figure. Those tales always impress. Isn't that religion too? So, I believe there is an AWE that is accessible under the dome where science touches religion- after all are the questions of the cosmologists nowadays the same as religion has always asked?

 

G. From all sides, including many different religions (not just the Christian stories).

 

H. We show Loch Ness Productions' "'Tis the Season" that features different theories on the Star of Bethlehem. It shows the flaws in each theory (comet, supernova, planetary conjunctions) and at the end the narrator focuses on the meaning rather than the science. A staff member mentioned to be once that the minister of her church recommended the show to his congregation. So I guess that's a good sign on how the show is being received by the religious community.

 

I. For 30 years in public school planetariums I used the Luke and Matthew Christmas story and had not one complaint. We are about education! I taught with the Peace Corps at an Iranian school for two years. The school taught Islam and because I was a Christian I learned a great deal about Islam and appreciated it. We are not to force religion on students but ignorance is not necessary either.

 

J. I have presented a show on this subject and I address it from the point of view of an astronomer, ie. what astronomers think may have been this light in the sky at that time. So I present the program from the point of view of science - and I let my audience know that from the outset (and beforehand - I tell this to whoever hires me to do the program right from the beginning what my approach will be.) I have given this program in churches - to church groups - and I have never had any difficulties.

 

K. {no response}

 

L. I have written the script for our version of this show and I basically deal with the religious and literary explanations as such and therefore outside of scientific query. I then present several possible scenarios that can support scientific inquiry. I do it matter-of-factly, so that there is no slight to those explanations that are not of a scientific nature.

M. I often end with It could also have been something we cannot explain. Often no comment is made and I do not attempt to bring up the religious aspect unless someone raises the question.

Answers to question 3

 

A. Basically that the planetarium is not a place for religious dogma; focusing on astronomy and astrology lets me avoid discussion of the significance of the Star while allowing me to discuss its appearance as well as the history of its interpretation.

 

B. You would have to ask Al Peche at MOSI. If the administration will allow it I would like to use the same show here at CCM because it worked so well in Tampa.

 

C. We take into account that non-Christians are going to see the program who might not like it to turn it into a preaching ambush (dogmatic thinking again). We must also take into account other religions that may have a problem with it. Primarily the Jehovah's Witnesses who are dead set against celebrating any holiday. I got complaints at RCC but not at Chaffey from JW's. I also had additional resources at my disposal at Chaffey. During the narration of portions of the Christmas Story, I was displaying Nativity and Wise Men artwork over the centuries - Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Modern, etc. It gave it a more artsy-feel to it and less a religious exercise, especially when I finished my artwork display on a piece where the artist actually thought that the Christmas Star was actually a comet. It just further proved the points I made earlier and later on in the presentation. This is not a religious program, it is a lecture on archeo-astronomy (history) trying to explain what it could have been from records unearthed in recent times.

 

D. The facts we take into account are that increasingly there are more and more children (and adults) of differing religious persuasions attending the planetarium. Jewish, Muslim, and a variety of Asian religions but we also have more vocal Christian sects who forbid their children from seeing a "pagan" based Christmas show. Also we have considered the overall effect of the astrological significance of God planning a conjunction at "just" the right time and having non-Jewish individuals who were able to interpret the event correctly. The conclusion one can make from the "facts" as presented in such programs is that astrology works and God is the chief astrologer since he controls the universe. In one breath most Christian will tell you that astrology is a black art or a false belief and that searching for "signs" is forbidden. On the other hand they embrace this story as being proof that the events of the Nativity happened just as Matthew alludes.

 

E. Political correctness, as well as the opportunity to demonstrate the scope of the scientific method.

 

F. {no response}

 

G. To be objective, balanced, and fair. You do an analysis from a literary and scientific research point of view. That doesn't mean a dry fashion, mind you, as you can still tell stories in a vivid way. You just make sure that a distinction is made between what is literary storytelling and scientific evidence.

 

H. All of our public shows are taped and automated so our docents can do the shows without me and I choose my shows carefully. It's not that hard; all you have to do is avoid the "E" word (use a synonym) and the audience will not be as defensive. For live shows (only for school groups) I'm the only one who does it so I make sure I'm aware of what kind of group it is and accommodate. Remember, this is astronomy, not biology. You don't HAVE to use mention evolution to have a good science-oriented show.

 

Customers come to the planetarium expecting to see science no matter what their faith. Just last week we had a group of a very devout church group. Staff members were telling me they were making positive remarks about me and my presentation and how informative it was throughout the rest of their visit in the exhibit floor and I did nothing out of the ordinary from a regular group.

 

I have been working here long enough to gain a positive reputation among the local public and private schools so they know what kind of show they'll get when they come here and they keep on coming. I try to live under the motto: "the customer may not always be right, but they are never wrong."

 

I. We approached the information we had about Christmas in trying to use science to try to find a date for Christmas. In the process we could teach about the calendar, and seasons, and comets, and supernova and meteors, and gave people an educational experience families could be part of in a time of the year when little education is done. These are programs that are optional. If people do not want their children to learn about the "Star of Bethlehem" they do not go to the program. (They take them to the mall where they are singing "How Jesus the Savior did come for to die?" over the speaker system)

 

J. My training in science, and the fact that I base my planetarium programs as describing the world from the perspective of modern science.

 

K. {no response}

 

L. Our original planetarium was named after a Jewish rabbi. Needless to say, this question comes up quite often under the circumstances. It is simplest to play up the science end and play down the religious explanations.

 

M. Personal experience.

 

Answers to question 4

 

A. Public.

 

B. This facility is part of a public education institution so I must assume it falls under public.

 

C. Riverside Community College and Chaffey College are California Community Colleges, a public institution. I presently work at Chabot Space and Science Center which is also a public institution. I arrived in February and cannot comment on the content of the show here.

 

D. Public

 

E. Public, we are part of the State of Colorado and the University of Colorado.

 

F. As a public educational institution I am not allowed to include religion in the for school programming. I am entirely content to remain scientific. However, I don't believe one can be educated correctly without including the question of God. The inclusion of minority religions as curriculum points bothers me, because that's religion in a public school. Native American religious dances, stories, songs should be banned too if you are going to police the exclusion of religion from public schools. And Buddhist inclusionary morality too, and witchcraft. How many Planetariums have coven meetings, any? I think children in particular are more apt to bring God into the program because the human mind naturally races to seek the origin and end of space/time - and there God is.

 

Private groups such as church groups, scouts, and the like book programs that may freely include religious elements without that being a problem for our institution.

 

G. Public. (I still do consulting and volunteer work with the Taylor Planetarium at the Museum of the Rockies, which is a division of Montana State University).

 

H. We're a private 501(c)3 organization not affiliated with the city.

 

I. Experiences were all in a public planetarium. This year I worked for a private college and we had no "Star of Bethlehem" program.

 

J. Private

 

K. {no response}

 

L. public - we are connected to a state university

 

M. Public.

 

Other responses:

 

Ahh, one of my favorite subjects (not)! Arkansas is in the middle of the Baptist Bible Belt and this is an issue every day of my planetarium life.

 

I do not discuss religion in the planetarium. When the question comes up, I tell them science and religion can - and should - go hand in hand. Science tells what happened and religion tells why. The rest is up to them - whatever THEIR faith tells them.

 

If they try to pursue it with "But, THE BIBLE SAYS. . ." I point out that our audience, our country, is very culturally diverse and I do not feel comfortable discussing ANY religion. I add that there may be other audience members that are Muslim, Buddhist, or Jewish - and I do not wish to insult or isolate them because of their religious beliefs.

 

There have been some occasions when the questioner will not back down, or leave the issue alone. I simply tell them that I do not teach my religion in the planetarium and I will not teach theirs.

 

This, of course, applies to adults at our public shows. When a child on a field trip asks a question about the religious aspect, I merely tell them that it is what they believe in their hearts. I also suggest they talk to their parents, or Sunday School teachers. This always seems to satisfy the youngster.

 

My planetarium is on a university campus (state supported) - so I especially feel the separation between state and religion is a very important issue here. When the discussion comes up about presenting religion based shows - I refuse. We have a large number of international students and I feel it would be exclusionary to the ones that are not Christians. As for our US Citizens, I feel it is up to me to uphold their constitutional rights to that guaranteed separation - as well as their right of freedom in their religious beliefs.

 

I feel strongly about this because I am Buddhist. I become very weary when I am constantly having some one else's religion SHOVED down my throat - which is why I feel it is my MORAL duty to protect someone else that may have the same feelings, but are too frightened by religious zealots to speak up for themselves.

 

The Planetarium is a very sacred place to me - a place of science, fantasy and fun. Religion belongs in the churches and the homes.

 

You are welcome to use any of my opinions in your paper. Good luck!

 

Pamela Shireman

Outreach Coordinator and Manager

UALR Planetarium

University of Arkansas at Little Rock

 

---

 

This is in response to your posting on Dome-L on religion in planetariums, and specifically in Star of Bethlehem shows. Its something I've given a lot of thought to.

 

For the record, the Griffith Observatory is a public educational institution owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is as ethnically-mixed community as you will find in the United States. You may quote me.

 

We've presented a Christmas Star show for decades as an annual holiday tradition, and it has a loyal following. It is one of our most popular shows and we plan to continue it into the indefinite future. Although visitors quibble with parts of it, no group has suggested that it is inappropriate for a public museum and we have not been asked to discontinue it. I think that is because we tell a story that is interesting, and we form conclusions as scientists and historians that treat the subject with respect. We analyze the story in Matthew as if it were a historical document and look for a plausible solution given the way people looked at the sky at the time. We neither confirm nor deny the supernatural because we don't need to; our goal is to understand, rather than to prove or disprove.

 

This is the approach we take. (An earlier version of our script was published in the Planetarian in Vol. 13 #3; it has not changed substantially.) We begin by retelling the account from Matthew as a story, taking it at face value, as it defines our mission, which is to identify the "star" we are told was seen by the magi. We briefly identify the players (who were the magi and how did their way of looking at the sky differ from the people of Herod's kingdom) and comment on the uncertainty of the date of the nativity. We see the eclipse that accompanied Herod's death and use it to establish that Jesus was probably born in the few years prior to 1 BC. Then we examine the possibilities for a "star" as interpreted by the magi, knowing what we do of their astrology, and conclude that they likely identified the "star" with a series of planetary conjunctions. We spend considerably time following the motions of the planets through the years 3 and 2 B.C. The last third of the show is a discussion of the meaning of the winter solstice and its relevance to the date Christmas is celebrated, and a look at the origin of modern holiday customs as they derive from solstice celebrations.

 

Our Christmas Star show has a LOT of astronomy. People come away learning about planetary motions and the solstice and seasons. They also look at the sky through the eyes of people who lived long ago and learn how they thought about the sky and how that is different than how we think of the sky today. The show is cultural as well as astronomical.

 

Our experience is that Christians who see the show gain insight into a story they have always heard about. They have a new way of thinking about something familiar, and they enjoy it. Their faith is not challenged. A few come away with their faith reaffirmed because, in their view, we've provided an explanation for how God worked this particular miracle; a few are disappointed that "we removed God from the picture." (This is also the case for every planetarium show we present.) Non-Christians, who are a large percentage of our audience even at Christmas-time, are not challenged by our approach, in our experience. They seem to enjoy learning about a story they might or might not be familiar with; at any rate, they see the planetarium projector in heavy use as we demonstrate a lot of good astronomy while gaining a few insights about the culture they live within.

 

I'm actually equally concerned about appearing to promote astrology in our Christmas shows. We do not. We go to great pains to emphasize that finding something that could be interesting to an astrologer is not the same as proving that astrology works, and I think our audience gets this important distinction. My sense is that many other planetariums do this poorly or not at all and consequently have serious misgivings about the conflicting message they are giving their audiences. But that is another story.

 

Good luck with your project. If you are pleased with the way it turns out, I'd be happy to consider it for publication in the Planetarian. Please see the Authors Guidelines at the Planetarian web site, which is linked through the Griffith Observatory web site.

 

John Mosley

Griffith Observatory

Los Angeles, California

 

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Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 31, #3, September 2002, with additional text not included in the original article. Copyright 2002 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor John Mosley, 2800 E. Observatory Road, Los Angeles, CA 90027.

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