Life on Mars,
The Star of Bethlehem &
Other Milky Way Mysteries

Mark Kidger
(Johns Hopkins)
--- Despite our disgustingly excessive orgies of buy and sell centering around the 25th of December, Jesus was probably born in the Spring of 5 B. C. Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk and a very bad mathematician, constructed the Christian calendar to purge the Roman one of "blasphemous references." He blew it because he omitted not a few periods from the early years of the Roman Empire, such as the reign of Gaius Octavius (31 - 27 B.C.)

--- In addition, shepherds in and around Bethlehem certainly weren't out there watching over their flocks by night in the month of December because it was too damn wet and cold in the fields. They more likely stayed home watching over their carafes of mead, trying to warm their frosty fingers and toes.

--- Stonehenge wasn't massed up by Celtic druids hauling great stones from afar on their backs, but rather was built by Ironians --- primitives from the Iron age --- using deer-antlers to dig in the earth and round rocks for transport. It was constructed in three stages, starting around 3150 and ending in 1600 B.C. After all this time, no one, much less Wiccan fans, can figure out why the Ironians hauled all these stones about, higgledy-piggledy, some being monoliths more than twelve feet tall, weighing in at 45 tons.

--- Greeks and Romans may have put mythic names on several prominent constellations, but they had nothing on the Chinese who dubbed some 300 "asterisms," including "the Cow Herder," "the Dogs," and "the Wagging Tongue."

--- There is some controversy as to whether Pluto should be called a planet: some scientists see it as an asteroid, not much larger than Ixion and Sedna, from which come some of the stranger inhabitants here on earth.

--- Pluto was discovered by a Kansas farmhand named Clyde Tombaugh by the simple expedient of singlehandedly checking through 45,000,000 stars --- that's forty-five million spots of light on photographic plates --- taken with the telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1930. Tombaugh found, at last, a "jumping star," e.g., a object that moved around on his glass plates not unlike Mexican jumping beans.

--- Those sourpusses who want to demote Pluto want, at the same time, to elevate the status of earth's moon, setting up earth and its satellite as a binary planetary system.

--- While not busy writing grant applications for the National Science Foundation, astronomers spend their spare time discovering asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, along with others known as TNOs --- Trans-Neptunian Objects. So far they have come up with some 10,000, which if you ask me, is just too many things floating around out there.

--- When they are done counting astronoids and courting the NSF, astronomers are busy creating new, big telescopes, the most recent dubbed OWL, to be built for the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile. OWL is translated, and I'm not kidding, as "the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope."

The title Astronomical Enigmas may be somewhat misleading. The volume doesn't appear to me to contain any of the more unusual or even usual Enigmas of Life: why are we here, why are they (planets, suns, stars, comets) out there, who were you before you were? I'm guessing it's a text-book for bored high-schoolers. It's pretty dry stuff, with boggling headers like "Amazing and Unlikely Theories," the Moon as "Desirable Real Estate," and "Goldilocks and the Three Planets," along with the inevitable eye-glazing "SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING."

For humor, the author tells us that some suggest that "the only thing that we got out of the Apollo program was nonstick frying pans," and discusses photographs of Jupiter's moon Io. (Io is pronounced "eye-oh." She was another innocent maid chased about by lusty Zeus. To save her from a jealous wife, he changed her into a cow. Moral: never permit the gods get the hotpants for you, or you might end up as a heifer.)

Anyway, Kidger tells us that Io looks like "a giant pizza," what with all sorts of mustard, pineapple, mushroom, and tomato flavored lavas flowing out of its many volcanoes. Hold the bacon.

There is a mite of poetry here, too: hell, the whole diaspora of space and stars and comets and galaxies and such is pure poetry, although most people don't seem to care. Someone once wrote that the secret of outer space is nothing. Cruising around out there in your intergalactic SUV, you can go for eons and eons and eons, and never get anywhere even near any of the stars or comets or galaxies or suns. Only the lonely, the unreachable, the fathomless bottomless whole of dark space.

Whenever Pluto's methane boils up, the author tells us, it's called "sublime." I like that. It is sublime, no? And there is his take on the effect of lunar eclipses on early inhabitants of the earth:

    Imagine the feelings of Neolithic men and women when this dependable light in the sky was taken away and, as is often the case during total lunar eclipse, the Moon turned blood red.

We're not sure why the author wants to call it "the Moon." Our old favorite Webster's 9th is content with calling it pokey old "the moon." Perhaps the author has a touch of the madness, to which many astronomers (and astrologists) are subject. It comes, monks of the 13th century tell us, directly from our new sister planet. The holy fathers believed, perhaps rightly, that lunacy (Late Latin, lunaticus from luna, the moon) was something that came and went with the phases. Especially for those who spent too much time peering at them.

--- Lolita Lark
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