According to the Gospel of Mathew the wise men, or Magi, from the east came to Jerusalem trailing a bright star, which they interpreted as an omen that a King was born. The astral light guided them to Bethlehem where the Magi reportedly discovered the infant Jesus. The mystery surrounding this legend has gripped the attention of astronomers for many centuries. Research in astrophysics suggests that the celestial light around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ could probably be an unusual alignment of the planets, the sun and the moon. It is likely that the wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers who interpreted this planetary alignment as a sign that a powerful leader was born.
Apart from its religious significance, the biblical story illustrates that historically astronomy and astrology were intertwined. By simple definition astronomy is the observation and study of celestial bodies, while astrology attempts to predict how the planets' positions influence key events and the lives of human beings. Until the later part of the medieval period astronomy was treated as the foundation upon which astrology could operate. However, the18th century marked the separation of astronomy and astrology as two distinct disciplines. Astronomy is now studied as a pure science. Astrology, which uses the apparent locations of heavenly objects as the basis for the prediction of future events, has been relegated as a pseudoscience, having no scientific validity.
My interest in the intricate link between astronomy and astrology was kindled by an ongoing discussion by members of an Internet group that I am a part of. The diverse group comprises knowledgeable physicists, an erudite professor of political science and several well-informed and learned individuals who have offered valid insights on: whether or not astrology has any scientific basis and astronomy can be used to justify the astrological predictions of zodiac signs.
The intent of this column is not to support or contradict these viewpoints. However, as a student of physics (who has failed to make any significant contribution to her area of discipline) I would like to inject a somewhat different perspective to the discussion.
There is no question that astronomy is a science that helps us conceptualise and calculate the shape, size, nature and paths of celestial bodies with accuracy and precision. But the problem is that modern day astronomers tend to confine the study of the subject mostly to mathematical equations and theoretical calculations. Interestingly, early scientists/astronomers like Nicolaus Copernicus (who made the astronomical discovery that the earth revolves around the sun) and Galileo Galilei (who used a home-made telescope to show that the earth was not the centre of the solar system as was commonly believed then) did not just sit in an office room and focus on diagrams and mathematics. They were inspirational thinkers with great imagination, and a can-do attitude. They actually started off by “stargazing” and were connected to nature and its mysterious phenomena -- some of which still remain a deep mystery. Despite the fact that Copernicus revisited and revised the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy he had great regard for these ancient philosophers/scientists whose theories and discoveries were based on abstract concepts developed from observing natural occurrences rather than hardcore scientific evidence.
I realise that today we live in a world of specialisation where knowledge has become compartmentalised. But I wonder if we are missing out on something important as a result of the narrow outlook that bars us from moving from one discipline to another and accepting that there may be some advantage to viewing each discipline as a small part of the whole. The fact remains that everything in our universe is essentially interconnected.
Whether or not we accept that Christ's birth was signaled by the appearance of a bright star in the heavens is a matter of choice. But let us not underestimate the benefits of simply looking up at the vastness of a starlit sky and accepting that there are things out there that we know very little of. The expanse of the sky also provides us with a realistic perspective of our existence and our limited role in the order of things.
Whatever branch of science we pursue the ultimate goal is to use our knowledge to improve the lives of human beings. This objective is better served if we are more aligned to each other and also to nature in the real sense, not just through numbers and figures! Yes, calculations and computations can help us explain many of the mysteries of life and space. But, to discover new horizons we need to let our minds flow freely, so that we can imagine the unimaginable!
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org