Oct 15 2015

Article: ‘Decoding the Star Charts of Ancient Egypt’

Nut (top), the Egyptian sky goddess Photograph by Ferit Kuyas; courtesy of the University of Tübingen Museum

Nut (top), the Egyptian sky goddess
Photograph by Ferit Kuyas; courtesy of the University of Tübingen Museum

Courtesy of the Agade listserv, this fascinating article in Scientific American Volume 313, Issue 4, available for purchase here.

Preview:

Decoding the Star Charts of Ancient Egypt
Mysterious tables of astronomical information have been found in 4,000-year-old coffins. What in the world was their purpose?

By Sarah Symons and Elizabeth Tasker

The Egyptian town of Mallawi is not on the main tourist beat, given its location 260 miles and a seven-hour train ride north of the temple complexes at Luxor. But one of us (Symons) traveled there in May 2013 with Robert Cockcroft, a postdoctoral researcher in her laboratory, hoping to see one of the oldest astronomical records in the world. The record, which had been described only vaguely, was indeed there, but to their astonishment, it was not the only one.

“I can see writing!” Cockcroft exclaimed. At that moment, he was crouched beside a display case that enclosed a coffin in the central room of the Mallawi Monuments Museum, craning his neck to peer at the underside of the propped-up wood lid. Symons flicked the beam of her flashlight to illuminate a thin batten-a cross piece-that held the flat panels of wood together. The batten’s surface was painted with graceful hieroglyphics representing star names, and Symons and Cockcroft immediately realized that the cross piece was part of yet another ancient astronomical record. Until that moment, no one had recognized the batten’s significance; it had been attached to this particular coffin by mistake [....]

[Click here for full purchasable full story, with charts].


Oct 01 2015

Journal of Skyscape Archaeology — call for submissions

skyscape

From the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology Facebook page.

JSA is soliciting submissions for future issues. Articles which address the relationship between material culture and the sky whether this be the practice of relating the heavenly bodies and celestial phenomena to lives and events on earth as evidenced through material monuments and artefacts or the wider landscape will be considered. Click here for the full Call for Papers.

 


Sep 02 2015

‘Star Men’, a documentary, premieres September 3 at the 35th Cambridge Film Festival.

Very Large Array With Stars. hoto credit: Malcolm Park

‘Very Large Array With Stars’. Photo credit: Malcolm Park

The history of astronomy intersects with the study of religion in a variety of ways — not least of which being the ways in which astronomers parse and experience the night sky.

In the documentary, Star Men, which premieres September 3rd, 2015 at the 35th Cambridge Film Festival, filmmaker Alison Rose accompanies four English astronomers, Drs. Donald Lynden-Bell, Roger Griffin, Wal Sargent and Neville Woolfon, on a return road trip to the U.S. southwest as they revisit the astronomical adventures and discoveries of their youth, with their Union Jack flag in tow.

As the Star Men web site describes the astronomers’ pilgrimage to their old observing sites:

In old age and facing death, their journey through memory and the breathtaking landscape provokes them to reflect on how their profound work on the universe has reflected back on the individual, affecting their sense of religious faith, how life may have purpose, and what is knowable and unknowable.

Filmed in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the film features POV narration, and draws a character-driven, intimate portrait of friendship as the men travel from the century-old telescope on Mt. Wilson through a progression of larger and more powerful observatories. They pause at the Grand Canyon, and re-take a hike that nearly defeated them when they were young.

As blogger Barbara Kiser points out, although Star Men tells the story of the advances in astronomy taking place place fifty years ago, this film transcends the science itself, highlighting the core themes of aging, illness, death, and ultimately, meaning, set against the starry background of the cosmos. Through the eyes of the film’s subjects, the audience is privileged to explore “the worth of human spaceflight to religion, extra-terrestrial life and mortality.”

Which is, after all, precisely what historians of science and religion are reaching for as well, albeit from a slightly different direction.


Aug 24 2015

INSAP IX

The ninth international conference on The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena is currently taking place (August 24-27, 2015) at Gresham College, Holborn, London.

INSAP IX is sponsored by the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Those, like myself, who aren’t attending can still feast their eyes on (and download) the conference programme here.

Held approximately every three years, INSAP is unique in bringing scholars from seemingly far-flung disciplines together to engage and discuss topics that address the theme of astronomical inspiration.

Topics this year include astronomy and literature, early human perceptions of the constellations, the geometry of stone circles, the zodiacal light, astronomy and music, philosophy and space travel, and astronomy and the visual arts. All told, it looks like a fantastic programme. If you are an attendee, and would like to submit a guest posting about your INSAP IX experience or your own research, I would very much like to hear from you. Feel free to contact me at a_lobel@live.concordia.ca


Jul 19 2015

New(ish) publication: The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800-2000, by Kocku von Stuckrad

scientification

In The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800-2000 (De Gruyter, 2014), Kocku von Stuckrad describes “the discursive constructions of  ’religion’ and ‘science’ through the disciplines of astrology, astronomy, psychology, alchemy, chemistry, and scientific experimentation more generally. The second half of the book explores the power of academic legitimization of knowledge in emerging European modernities.” (Source: Review by Kristian Petersen, accessible here.)

The table of contents for this volume may be found here.

An interview with von Stuckrad on a wide range of topics, including Theosophy, marginalized knowledge, Earth-based spirituality, Jewish mysticism, Paganism, and contemporary science, is also available at the above link at the bottom of the page. This is one of the best interviews I’ve listened to in a while.

I have yet to read this volume, but look forward to doing so. I also welcome scholarly guest reviewers in the broadly overlapping areas of astronomy and religion. If you have read this book (or plan to) or other volumes spanning astronomy (and/or space) and religion, and wish to post a review here, please e-mail me at a_lobel@live.concordia.ca.

 


Jul 13 2015

Exhibit (San Francisco): “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

“Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty” looks like a marvelous exhibit. An artistic take on the Jewish day, which begins the night before, it runs through September 20 at the CJM, 736 Mission St., San Francisco. More information available at http://www.thecjm.org.

A quote in this Jweekly.com article describing the exhibit, however, caught my eye:

According to Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, the rabbis of early times had a deep understanding of astronomy: After all, the Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle, and called upon Jews “to observe nature and be a part of this world.

“We have a tradition,” Wolf-Prusan notes, “that says, ‘Pay attention. See what’s around you.’ ”

There are certainly a number of rabbinic sources that support this viewpoint; Wolf-Prusan is not wrong, precisely. But in keeping with the old borscht belt adage “two Jews, three opinions,” I’d like to throw my own hat into the ring. While the Jewish calendar is lunisolar (not purely lunar), I would argue that the gradual move toward the fixing of the Jewish calendar (i.e., in place by the ninth-tenth centuries CE) turned rabbinic eyes away from direct celestial observation, not toward it. As per the research of Sacha Stern in ‘Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies’ (2012, Oxford University Press), this move was in keeping with the rise of the era of urbanization and fixed calendars (Stern 336). Aside from the recitation of the rosh hodesh (new month/moon) prayer (usually performed en passant) and the blessing on the sun recited every twenty-eight years (more about which, see here and here) Judaism is no longer focused on the skies. Heaven, yes, but not the heavens.

But here is the key. As is so often the case when analyzing rabbinic sources, particularly the Babylonian Talmud, multivocality reigns. This, combined with doubts cast upon the historicity of certain rabbinic institutions and astronomical-calendrical procedures makes it difficult, if not impossible, to unequivocally state that the rabbis all understood, let alone championed, the observation and study of the cosmos. In my own recent research, I demonstrate this rabbinic multivocality, highlighting views of the natural world on Earth, and perspectives on the heavens, that range from reverence and appreciation to outright scorn toward those who would waste time on any pursuit but the study of Torah.

That said, however, in addition to his own call for Jews to appreciate the natural world, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan also mentions that of the late rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel for “‘radical amazement’ — a sense of wonder that is a prerequisite to wisdom and faith.” It is on the contemporary scene that we see the opening of the floodgates of writing and political action — from Heschel’s call to similar calls for the preservation of nature as a “Torah responsibility” by the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), as well as the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. In addition, the past few decades have brought with them new Earth-based Jewish groups, including Tel Shemesh, The Walking Stick Foundation, the Adamah Fellowship, and Wilderness Torah.

While these are most welcome changes, I leave open the question of whether these were borne of the classical sources themselves or whether they are, in fact, inspired but primarily contemporary shifts toward a more grounded (and cosmos-inspired) spirituality.


Jul 09 2015

The Nebra Sky Disc — an astronomical Bronze Age treasure

Photograph by Gerhard Singer, on Flickr

Photograph by Gerhard Singer, on Flickr

Discovered in 1999, the European Bronze Age astronomical artifact known as the Nebra Sky Disc was nearly lost to the black market, but fortunately found itself in the hands of the scientific community. It is now on display at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Germany.

Dated to circa 1600 BCE, the bronze and gold-emblazoned disc contains a graphical representation of the sun, moon, and the constellations Andromeda and Cassiopeia, among other celestial objects of agricultural and calendrical importance, including the Pleiades.

The astronomical sophistication it demonstrates is remarkable. Astronomer Ralph Hansen has determined that the disc served to coordinate the solar and lunar cycles for agricultural purposes.

Perhaps just as important is the glimpse it offers into the astral religion of the Bronze age in Northern Europe. This is supported by Hansen’s research, which demonstrated a striking parallel to a rule of intercalation (i.e., adding a thirteenth month to the year) related to the lunar crescent found in the Babylonian MUL.APIN, dating a thousand years later, to the seventh-sixth centuries BCE.  According to Hansen, the intercalary month would be added every two to three years when the position of the Pleiades in the night sky matched its position on the Nebra sky disc. However, according to archaeologist Harald Meller of the State Museum for Prehistory at Halle (who was involved in the recovery of the disc), later layers suggest that at least some of its astronomical function was eventually lost, and “that in the end the disk became a cult object.” Astronomers Emilia Pasztor and Curt Roslund go even further, stating that it more likely served a religious purpose for the Northern Bronze Age European elite, including chiefs and shamans. [The full article, in Antiquity 01/2007; 81 (312):267-78, may be accessed here.]

In 2013, the Nebra sky disc was added to UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ Register.

 

 


Jul 07 2015

Call for papers: Religion, Science and the Future Conference – January 14-16, 2016, The University of Florida

Category: Announcements,Call for papersalobel @ 9:05 pm

Sponsored by The International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, the Religion, Science and the Future Conference will take place January 14-17, 2016 at The University of Florida, Gainesville.

The deadline for paper and panel proposals is July 15, 2015.

For more information, please see the full announcement.


Jun 23 2015

Ph.inisheD.

Category: Announcementsalobel @ 8:48 am

i-can-t-keep-calm-i-passed-my-dissertation-defense


Jun 05 2015

Article: An interview with Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno SJ

consolmagno

Source: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-05/considering-heavens

I occasionally link to more confessional, interesting articles that illuminate the ways in which members of different faiths view astronomy. This one, “Considering the Heavens: Astronomer Guy Consolmagno”, is simply fascinating.

Quote:

We need the humility to say that we don’t understand it all. I know my science is true, but I also know it is not completely true, so I have to keep improving it. I think my faith is completely true, but I know I don’t understand all of it—my understanding is in constant need of revision.


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