Letter: The sky at night

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Roger Highfield ascribes discovery of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7BC to David Hughes of Sheffield University; it was in fact discovered by Kepler in1603 ("Our ancient fascination with the sky at night", 19 December). Modern archaeology confirms that the conjunction was observed at the School of Astrology at Sippar in Mesopotamia.

Most of the Christmas carols we sing are good poetry and most are consistent with the Biblical record. Not surprisingly, most are also astronomically challenged. An exception is O Little Town of Bethlehem which contains the lines: "O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth."

Phillips Brooks wrote this in Victorian times, and presumably he was aware of the real identity of the star of Bethlehem.

From the astronomical point of view, the most troublesome aspect of the Biblical record is in Matthew 2 verse 9 - "...and, lo, the star which they saw in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was". In fact, as the astronomers journeyed south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on 4 December, the third conjunction would have been ahead of them all the time. One can imagine their reaction - except one does not have to. "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy" (v10).

Roger Highfield is right to say the debate will continue. That does not mean that the facts are not available.

HENRY SPYVEE

Colchester, Essex

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