Friday, January 29, 2010

Bang, Zoom!

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, 'Because it is there.'

Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

-- President John F. Kennedy, Houston, September 12, 1962
In one of the most famous speeches, Kennedy affirmed this nation's goal of leading the way in space exploration and scientific research. I was too young to remember the speech when it was made, but the space race, and in particular the moon landing of 1969 was a source of fascination to me. It was something that the whole nation could rally around. Best of all it was something positive and peaceful. Unlike a war or economic sanctions, it built up our nation and our economy without tearing down anyone else's.

In the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster, President Bush announced a "return to the moon" with a less inspiring speech.
In the past 30 years, no human being has set foot on another world or ventured farther up into space than 386 miles, roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts.America has not developed a new vehicle to advance human exploration in space in nearly a quarter century.
It is time for America to take the next steps.

Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel.
Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions
Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea. We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit.

So let us continue the journey.

May God bless.

-- President George W. Bush, January 14, 2004
America was, of course, less excited about returning to the moon than going there in the first place. It wasn't seen as "new' exploration. However, the words and intent to the speech were not to use the moon as the ultimate goal, but to use it as a stepping stone to exploring the rest of out solar system.

I believe that if we are to survive as a nation and as a species, we need to explore space. The Earth is rich in resources, but it is only a tiny speck compared to what is in our own solar system. Unlike mining or foresting, taking resources from space, and using them to enrich our lives does not require taking anyone's land, disrupting anyone's culture, or making alliances with corrupt governments. They are there for the use of anyone with the courage to go out and take them.

So although I was disappointed we weren't going to Mars or a near Earth asteroid, I was happy to go back to the moon if it was a stepping stone. And indeed it was. The International Space Station (ISS), for all the hype is a dead end. We have learned all that we're going to about how humans can live in zero gravity - namely, that they can't for long periods of time. The promises of new drugs and zero G experiments that would provide new materials has not panned out. If we're going to live in space, we need to do it some place where there's gravity, and that means a moon or planet (or a spaceship simulating gravity). The ISS is an experiment that taught us lots of things, but it is not cost effective to continue.

The shuttle is also not cost effective, and not as safe as we once thought. I thought Bush's decision to retire the shuttle and replace it with a new, more capable vehicle was well founded. If he had also been able to scrap the ISS I would have been even more happy.

Six years later, president Obama decides to scrap all our plans for going to the moon, for going to Mars, for going to asteroids, for developing space at all. He even scraps our development of manned space vehicles. Did he do this to save money? At least that could be justified due to the economic problems and debt we face as a nation. No, instead he wants to increase NASA's budget, but have it all go towards supporting the ISS.

I have not heard a more backwards, idiotic space policy ever. Take the one project that stands to increase our knowledge and give back more than you put into it monetarily, and scrap it in favor of supporting a dinosaur that has no public interest and no scientific value. He does call for privatization of space, which I think is a good thing in the long term, but it is far too early to stop a national space program. Private investors don't want to see men on Mars, they want to make money short term, and that means lifting satellites into low Earth orbit, and giving sub orbital rides to billionaires. Worse yet, the companies poised to get the lion's share of the "stimulus" to privatize space are all foreign owned. Instead of reaching for the planets we have sunk back to our own atmosphere, just 300 miles up, and instead of giving a much needed boost to our own economy and infrastructure, we're shipping the money off shore.

Mr. Obama may think 300 miles is space, and technically it is, but it's like wading up to your ankles at the beach and calling it "ocean exploration". Perhaps Mr. Obama should take a trip to the ISS. I understand it's as close to Washington DC as Boston, and former occupants all say that it gives you a unique perspective on space.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Would I lie to you honey?

I am constantly irritated by the poor quality of journalism. Not being a journalism history buff, I can't say whether this is a new trend, or journalism has always been bad. I suspect the latter. Perhaps the internet has made it worse, since anyone can blog (yeah, I know).

"There are two sides to every argument" says the old saw. Yet, there is such a thing as Truth, and so one side must be wrong. Of course sometimes the Truth is very complex and it may be that neither side captures all the aspects of that Truth, but it should be possible to weed away that which is clearly not true. As the years go by I find myself becoming more critical of what I read. Perhaps that's why journalism seems to me to be getting worse.

Some of the bad journalism is patently obvious. Spelling errors, poor grammar, nonsensical sentences or contradictory statements, vital information left out or not given until far into the article, vague descriptions, all speak of bad journalism. But sometimes it's more subtle than that. Often the author takes a position which is presented as fact and perhaps backed up with statistics and observations that all seem compelling, but are in reality false.

Because I believe the object of reading "news" stories is to gain knowledge, and because I like my knowledge to actually be true, I have decided to write a post or two on critical reading skills. I'll pick an article or two, and then pick it apart. This post is merely an introduction to what may become a "series". I hope you enjoy it.

Roger Bacon, 13th century Franciscan Friar, who was the progenitor of the scientific method in the western world, writes to Pope Clement IV in Opus Majus that the causes of errors can be divided into four categories:
  1. following a weak or unreliable authority
  2. appealing to custom
  3. appealing to the ignorance of others
  4. concealing one's own ignorance by pretend knowledge
Clearly he wold have a field day on the internet today. Let's take a quick look at examples of each:

Following an unreliable authority
Many "pro choice" people quote to me the numbers given by NARAL of "thousands" of women dying each year from abortion before Roe v. Wade made it legal everywhere. This number was a lie concocted by NARAL's co-founder, Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Nathanson admited the organization lied about the number of women who died from illegal abortions when testifying before the Supreme Court in 1972.

"We spoke of 5,000 - 10,000 deaths a year.... I confess that I knew the figures were totally false ... it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?" he said.

The actual number of women who died from abortion in 1972 (before Roe v. Wade) was 39. That same year 24 women died from legal abortions.

Appealing to custom
The National Abortion Federation in the page History of Abortion says: "Abortion has been performed for thousands of years, and in every society that has been studied. It was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived."

The implication is obviously that it was legal in every society, which is not true. And even if it were it doesn't make a case for it being legal today. After all, torture has been performed for thousands of years and in every society. It was also legal in te United States from the time for earliest settlers arrived.

Appealing to the ignorance of others
Most of the lies reported today rely on the fact that most readers don't know how to check facts, reason scientifically or have knowledge about numbers or statistics. This is not to say all readers are stupid or even uneducated, but most of us have learned over the years to accept the written word as fact, and not to question statements made that have supposedly undergone review.

This article was the proverbial straw that prompted me to write this post. In "For Cave Women, Farmers had Extra Sex Appeal" the author uses the fact that genetic studies show more males from regions of agricultural development entered the gene pool than from regions where hunting was the primary food source. First off, there is very little in the article to suggest how the study was conducted, but ignoring that, there are other flaws. In an attempt to appear to be objective the author even includes a quote:
"That would be one way to interpret it," says Peter Underhill at Stanford University. But it's not necessarily just sex appeal at work, it "might be in terms of terms of not just physical appearance, but also in terms of ability to provide for offspring."
then continues to assert his interpretation of the "fact" that farming made cavemen sexy. Of course, neither the author nor Mr. Underhill consider alternative theories for more male farmers surviving than male hunters, such as farming being a safer profession than hunting.

Concealing one's own ignorance by pretend knowledge

This is another frequently used tactic to promote falsehood. make up numbers or facts to suit your point of view. An obvious case is the NARAL statistics used earlier in this post (under "unreliable authority") but there are plenty of other examples.

In TIME Magazine, February 26, 1990, the article "A Bitter Pill to Swallow" claims "The proof: about six million unwanted pregnancies occur in the U.S. each year." So let's look at the real statistics for 1990:

The CDC reports in 1990, there were 6.78 million pregnancies in the US. I am unable to find numbers for unwanted pregnancy rates for 1990, but according to this Guttmacher institute report the unintended (not unwanted) pregnancy rate in 1994 was 49%. One must assume that at least some of the women who weren't trying to get pregnant still wanted children, and so the pregnancy, though unintended, was still wanted. So TIME magazine's claim that the 1990 rate for unwanted pregnancies was almost 90% is implausible to the point of absurdity. Numbers made up to support a position.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

March for Life 2010

"So how was it?" asked Jim as we sat side by side in the freezing cold car.

Jim is part of the reason I am here, in this car, at 10 PM on a Friday night in January. It is  beautiful night, with Orion high in the sky, and crimson Mars glaring down on us. I wish I had my telescope with me, but I do not. I am not out here to look at the sky. We are driving home from the March for Life.

Last year I was going to sign up to go to the March for Life, but by the time I found the information the date was near and I had obligations. This year I decided to be more proactive about it. One thing that helped was finding out Jim was pro-life, and had even been to the March for Life many years ago. Jim is a gentleman I used to work with, back in the days when I was at Bell Labs. He saw my profile pic on facebook (which says "Pro Life") and contacted me.

For a national event, the March for Life is a remarkably well kept secret. Although there is an agenda posted, there's nothing on the site about getting to an upcoming march, or how to join in any of the oter activities on the agenda. Here in NJ, there is no information at all. The USCCB has a "Life Issues" section which has articles about abortion, mostly old, with no information on activities at all. The Diocese of Trenton has an equally useless website when it comes to information.

Apparently the way the diocese reaches out about this issue is a bulletin insert. Of course, bulletin inserts are not published anywhere but in bulletins, and my parish generally chooses not to include information from the bishops in its bulletin. If this sounds like a rant to the bishops to start communicating to the laity, it is.

Luckily for me Jim's parish did publish the bulletin insert, which was the only way I found a bus "near" me to go to the March for Life. I say "near" in quotes because it was still about 30 minutes' drive from me. Apparently none of the parishes close to me were going (what a surprise that the parishes who don't advertise the march don't attend the march).

Even with all this, there was very little information to be had. What should I bring? How should I dress? Do I have to make a sign? I called the beleaguered bus captain, who deferred my questions because he was very busy. I understand that, and he is a volunteer, but who to turn to? I wound up exchanging a dozen or so emails with Jim, who tried to remember what it was like last time.

In the end I relied mostly on my Boy Scout training in how to prepare for a winter hike. In the fullness of time I hope to start a web site for people who want to go to the march next year, to provide the information I did not have available to me.

At any rate, the night before the march I was a mess. I was feeling poorly already. I had a sore throat and was pretty achy. I was nervous about the march, and as I went to bed I started thinking of more and more things I had to remember in the morning. I had a horrible night's sleep, filled with nightmares of being badgered by Senator Menendez, for some reason.

I woke at about 4:45 AM and realized that I had to get up in the next 30 minutes anyway. I showered, dressed, and packed up my bags (yes, I overpacked, but it turned out well that I did) and dragged myself to the car. Since I didn't know the area where the bus was and Jim did I was going to pick him up at his house and carpool to the bus. I was late, and Jim had made a typo in the address he sent me, so there was a bit of stress finding the house.

I did find it, though, and Jim came out with his bag and got in the car. We got to the bus at about 6:30, which was when the bus was supposed to leave. The bus captains, Tony and Jim (no relation), and the bus driver, Bill, were great, and got us all settled. There were still a few people we had to wait for. The bus seated 48 people, but we were only expecting to be carrying 33, so Jim and I each took our own seat across the aisle from each other. That way we could stretch a little.

At about 6:45 we started off. The first stop was a neighboring parish that was sharing the bus with us. We had to wait five minutes for them because they were attending mass before leaving. I wished I belonged to a parish like that, were not only does the parish support its members going, but the priest says a special mass for them.

After collecting the rest of the passengers we started off to the march. I slept for much of the trip down, but I can tell you that the rest station we stopped at on the way down (in Delaware) was packed with buses. In the 20 minutes we were there I counted 64 buses parked, coming in or departing. I each of them held 33 people, that's over 2100 people in that rest stop in that 20 minute interval. I began to get an idea of the scope of the march.

Our bus driver actually dropped us off at the mall at a little before noon, and then went to wait for us at the train station. As we walked form the end where the buses were allowed, towards the Washington Monument, we were offered signs be several groups. We started out with "Students for Life" signs, and eventually traded up to "Men Regret Lost Fatherhood" signs. I had read that Priests for Life and Silent no More had printed up many thousands of signs, and I'd believe it from the number of them I saw.

Sadly, the signs, although beautifully printed on durable corrugated plastic, were so slippery it was nearly impossible to hold them up with gloves. Some people had cut hols in them and threaded twine to hang them. Others had duct taped them over the handle for another sign, but for the most part they wound up on the muddy ground or in the garbage.

Speaking of which, the amount of signage and other trash left behind was enormous. I realize that with over 300,000 people it's impossible to keep the place clean. You can't possibly have enough trash cans, and people couldn't get to them no matter how they tried. Still, I was disappointed.

Jim and I quickly got separated from our bus mates, and decided to stick together so we wouldn't get lost. We got a nice spot on the mall, near the speakers, but far enough away to be out of the main crowds. Despite the weather forecast of "snowy mix", aside from a few flurries there was no precipitation. I chalk that up to the many friends who were praying for me. Thank you all!

As we stood in the crowd, Jim and I listened to the music on the loudspeakers, then the national anthem, opening prayer, and opening address by Nellie Gray. I had heard the speeches were great, and they were. However, each speaker (and there were dozens) wanted the crowd to cheer and applaud, and after a while it became monotonous to do that. So we stood and listened to the speeches and the cheers from the center of the mall, and waitd to be able to march.

We noticed there were only two news trucks in the whole area; FOX and EWTN. It's a shame that the mainstream media, which reports on much smaller protests on issues they support, chooses to totally ignore this protest, which takes up the whole city for a whole day. Even FOX doesn't seem to have a story on their site, although presumably they had some coverage on TV. EWTN broadcast the March in a four hour long segment Friday night. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be on again, and I missed the first hour because I was still on the way home. I did see an article on CNN which featured a pro-abortion protest at the Supreme Court, which I saw no trace of. Despite the media reports to the contrary it is clear that this was a pro-life day!

Suddenly it seemed like the crowd was moving towards the Capitol building. We jumped into the middle of a group, only to discover that the "surge" was about 10 feet. Then we waited and waited. There were a bunch of college-aged kids with a loudspeaker who were leading us in popular songs with pro-life lyrics added. We sang song like Twisted Sister's "We're not Gonna Take it" (with "Right to Life" instead of "Right to Choose" in the lyrics), Queens's "We will 'Birth' You". A group started chanting "Obama, yo mama chose life".

Finally we started moving forward for real, Because Jim and I weren't with a group, we wandered around a bit checking out the various groups that were marching together. We saw states as far away as Iowa, and countries such as Canada, France, and Italy represented. There were a couple of small groups trying to sell "Virginity Rocks" tee shirts, but for the most part few were selling anything.

Some pro-life groups had areas along the march where they were speaking or handing out material, such as Americans United for Life, American Life League, Life News, Life Site News, the Center for Bioethical ReformStudents for Life and many others. Of course, there were a number of religious groups as well. We also saw several "Father Jenkins, free the ND 88" banners, a huge genocide awareness project display, and a gargantuan picture of Jesus, with over a dozen people struggling to carry it.

As we walked towards the capitol building, we passed numerous groups of young people saying the rosary, chanting the divine mercy chaplet, singing "Immaculate Mary" or other hymns. The group was remarkably quiet and orderly. Overall, the atmosphere was of somber respect.

By the time we got behind the Capitol building it was 3:30 and the police were squishing everyone down to one sidewalk, even though the whole street was blocked off and empty. It took us another half hour to get to the congressional offices two blocks away. We had been told it would take about 30 minutes to get through security to get into the congressional offices, and we had to be on the train by 5 to get to the bus by 5:30.

Fortunately we found a quicker way in, and got to visit congressman Chris Smith's pro-life party. There were Krispy Kreme donuts, soda, chips, water, and lots of people. I got to speak to the congressamn for about 30 seconds, and then we had to start for the train station. When we got there we found a line about a block long at the entrance. However, the line was moving well, and we got into the station by 5:05.

We made the bus on time, and there I was glad I overpacked. While we all groaned about our aching feet, I could take off my boot and change into  nice soft socks and sneakers! I listened to podcasts, slept, and did crossword puzzles on the way home. I was exhausted. We got back to my car, and Jim asked his question about the day's activities. I had to stop and think for a moment. "How was it?"

It was interesting, and exhausting. In the end, the best analogy I could come up with is it's like voting. My being there may not have mattered a whole lot, but my not being there certainly would have mattered. For that I am grateful I got a chance to go, and hope to go again next year.

Washington Times' Photos
Chris Smith's Speech
My photo set

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Day - his work is not yet done

From Fr. Frank Pavone's blog,

Dr. Alveda King, Pastoral Associate of Priests for Life and niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., released the following comments today on the celebration of her Uncle's life.

"Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of a Beloved Community where all are treated with respect and dignity," said Dr. King. "He fought against society's exclusion of people who were treated as less than human because of their appearance. Today, we are compelled to continue Uncle Martin's fight by standing up for those who are treated as less than human because of their helplessness and inconvenience.

"The unborn are as much a part of the Beloved Community as are newborns, infants, teenagers, adults, and the elderly. Too many of us speak of tolerance and inclusion, yet refuse to tolerate or include the weakest and most innocent among us in the human family. As we celebrate the life of Uncle Martin, let us renew our hearts and commit our lives to treating each other, whatever our race, status, or stage of life, as we would want to be treated. Let us let each other live."

Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, will join Alveda and her family as a program participant in the Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Star of Wonder

Apropos the question of "When was Jesus born?" is "What was the star of Bethlehem?" Matthew's gospel tells us the following:
Matthew 2:1-11 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,
saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."
After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
and that is the only mention in the bible of the star of Bethlehem. There are some basic questions raised by this:
  • Was this a historical account, or a legend?
  • If this was a historical account, what was it the magi saw?
  • If it was a real phenomenon could we use it to pinpoint Jesus' time of birth?
As to the first question, "was this a historical account" we can only speculate. The events described are not inconsistent with anything we know about the period or the other gospel accounts. Some people point out that since only Matthew describes the event, he made it up to make it appear that prophesies were fulfilled, namely:
Psalm 72:10 "May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts."
Psalm 72:15 "Long may he live, receiving gold from Arabia, prayed for without cease, blessed day by day."
Isaiah 60:6 "Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD."
Matthew, a Jew, and writing for a Jewish audience, would have been more concerned with the fulfillment of prophecies, so he'd have the greatest likelihood of wanting to embellish the nativity story in this way. Of course, Matthew, a Jew and writing for a Jewish audience would also be more likely to include this bit of history, which would have seemed minor to other gospel authors. One could also argue that those passages are not related to the appearance of the magi. So the argument that this "proves" the story is false is specious.

Since a negative assertion cannot be proved, the best we can do is look for evidence of the event. What was the star? Some claim that it was miraculous. Could this be the case? Certainly the miracle of the sun at Fatima was such an event. If we were to look for astronomical evidence of that we would be hard pressed to find anything that could be taken seriously. Indeed, the only explanation is a miracle, which is why the Church calls it one. Of course, if the star were a miraculous event, then there' not point in looking for evidence. Once again, we'd have a negative assertion and the whole thing must be taken on faith.

So in order to have some "proof", we must examine the case that the star was real and was a natural event. The word "star" in those days did not mean what it means today (an incandescent ball of hot gas floating in space), which makes the realm of possibilities broader than it might otherwise be. Some possibilities include:
  • A meteor
  • A comet
  • A supernova
  • A planet
  • Some astronomical event (e.g. conjunction)
Right away we can rule out meteors. The longest lasting meteors are only visible for minutes, which hardly explains how the magi were able to follow it for a long journey and still see it, even when they were in Jerusalem. So perhaps it was a comet.

The closest repeating comet sighting we know of would have been comet Halley in 12 BC. That's too early to correlate with other historical evidence that points to Jesus' birth as being between 7 and 2 BC. There was a comet reported by Chinese astronomers in April of 4 BC. We don't have evidence of a repeat visit by this comet. It could have been a long period comet. Such comets have extremely elliptical orbits and only approach once in thousands of years. However, if it were such a comet, there's no way to get evidence of it, so once again, there's no point in considering it. Additionally, comets were not thought to herald the birth of kings, but were considered bringers of death and misfortune, so it is hardly likely that the magi would have associated the appearance of a comet with the birth of Jesus.

There was an object recorded by Chinese astronomers in 5 BC which may have been a supernova in Capricorn. It was recorded from March 10 to April 27. It might have been a long period comet, although since no movement relative to the stars was recorded by the Chinese it seems unlikely to have been a comet. A more likely explanation would be a supernova. A supernova is a star which explodes, suddenly becoming brighter. Over a period of time the supernova becomes dimmer. A supernova leaves behind an expanding cloud of gas and debris, so if it were one there would be evidence. There is no such evidence, although it has been hypothesized that it could have been a bright supernova in another galaxy, which would make finding its remnant problematic.

Of the planets, there were five (other than the Earth) that were visible with the naked eye, and recognized as planets. They are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Usually there's at least one of them visible at some point during any given month. It would be hard to find something about a planet that would make it special enough to be considered the star of Bethlehem.

The popular theories around the star of Bethlehem focus on astronomical (or rather astrological) events, namely conjunctions. A conjunction is when two or more bodies are relatively close to each other in the sky. It doesn't necessarily mean they appear right next to each other. Anywhere in the same constellation can be considered a conjunction. Conjunctions are likely candidates because the magi are believed to be astrologers, and such events would have had symbolic meaning to astrologers. There are two main candidates in this area.

Frederick A. Larson, founder of The STAR Project, has created an impressive body of evidence concerning a series of conjunctions in 3 and 2 BC. In September of 3 BC there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter (the "mother" planet and the "god" planet). Jupiter then passed Regulus (the "king" star) 3 times, stopping and moving back and forth. In June of 2 BC, nine months after the original conjunction, there was an even more impressive conjunction, where Venus and Jupiter would have appeared to merge into a single very bright object, and then separate into separate objects.

Larson also claims that the description of John's vision in the book of Revelations is actually a depiction of the night sky at that first conjunction. In other words, John's vision was of the Annunciation.
Revelations 12:1-5 A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.
She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
The Austrian astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo had a different conjunction hypothesis. His theory was that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn rose together in the east on September 15, 7 BC. That was followed by three conjunctions of the two planets in 6 BC:
  1. May 27
  2. October 6
  3. December 1
The triple conjunction is rare, occurring every 800 years. Since 7BC, triple conjunctions were observed in 786 and 1583. Since Jupiter was the "god" planet and Saturn was associated with the Jews by the ancient Babylonians, the conjunction would have meant the birth of the king of the Jews.

I have read accounts of each of these hypotheses which claim that it is more likely than the other. As an amateur astronomer I personally like the Larson theory better, because the Jupiter/Venus conjunction in 2 BC would have been more visually impressive, and of course, we want to think impressive when we think of Christ.

I have two caveats, however. First off, in order to evaluate whether these events are "significant" we need to compare them to a "control". If we picked a different decade, could we find astronomical events just as compelling for the star of Bethlehem? Certainly the conjunctions mentioned are rare, but there are many different signs that could appear. What is the likelihood that a star of Bethlehem candidate appears in any given year? My gut tells me the likelihood is small, but I have not seen any publications that describe the research having been done.

Secondly, the "finding" of the star of Bethlehem, and even the accuracy of the account itself has no impact one way or the other on the historical fact of Jesus' birth, or on our belief that He is our Lord and Savior. Although it would be cool to have some "definitive" evidence of the star of Bethlehem, it would be a mistake to somehow base one's faith on it or to conclude that it alone was sufficient reason to believe.