Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Celestial Mechanics in one easy lesson

You probably already know that the phenomena of precession, the intersection of the celestial equator and the path of the ecliptic, the movement of the sun from one solstice to the other and back again, and the heliacal risings of different stars and constellations throughout the year are incredibly important concepts for any examination of the evidence left to us by ancient civilizations.

However, you may feel a twinge of uneasiness when it comes to the mechanics behind all of these celestial phenomena. After all, the descriptions of these heavenly events in books on the subject are sometimes rather hasty and perhaps assume a greater familiarity with the material than the reader may bring with him. It is pretty certain that these concepts are rarely -- if ever -- encountered in the general education that one receives in school. It is quite possible to obtain a college education without ever hearing them explained.

In fact, even though these phenomena are critical for anyone studying ancient history, religion, mythology, and archaeology, they are rarely taught even to aspiring students in those fields, as author Jane B. Sellers points out in her groundbreaking work, Death of Gods in Ancient Eygpt: A Study of the Threshold of Myth and the Frame of Time.

Lamenting the isolation and "specialization" that has developed between different disciplines and different academic departments, she writes:
Speculations from those working in astronomy, and also in the relatively new field of archaeoastronomy, that many myths originated in observations of the results of the precessional movement, have fallen for the most part on deaf ears. Astronomers often complain of the frustration that comes from realizing that archaeologists too often are completely unaware that the North Star is not fixed forever, as indeed, neither are the so-called 'fixed' stars.

[. . .]

Archaeologists, by and large, lack an understanding of the precession, and this affects their conclusions concerning ancient myths, ancient gods, and ancient temple alignments. Philologists, too, ignore the accusation that certain problems are not going to be solved as long as they imagine that familiarity with grammar replaces the scientific knowledge of astronomy. For astronomers, precession is a well established fact; those working in the field of ancient man have a responsibility to attain an understanding of it. 170-171.
In other words, if you don't completely understand the phenomenon of precession, don't beat yourself up too badly: professional archaeologists, historians, philologists and anthropologists often don't understand it either, and what's worse don't even bother to try, according to Jane B. Sellers, who knows a thing or two about the situation (you can read the entire chapter containing the above quotation online; it is called The Succession of World-Ages and it is chapter 20 in her book).

For readers who do want to understand precession, heliacal risings, the solstitial and equinoctial colures, and the shifting of the ages from the Age of Taurus to the Age of Aries to the Age of Pisces and beyond, the Mathisen Corollary contains a detailed and clear explanation of the fairly straightforward facts of planetary motion that lead to all of these phenomena.

Even better, the book contains numerous diagrams showing what is taking place, both from the perspective of an observer on earth and from the perspective of an observer looking down at the earth's orbit around the sun. Some of these are conceptually descended from the excellent diagrams created by beloved children's author H.A. Rey in his outstanding book the Stars: A New Way to See Them, but because the scope of the Mathisen Corollary is to apply an understanding of celestial mechanics to ancient myths and monuments, the subject is expanded and explained in many different ways to ensure that the reader can proceed confidently to the material that follows.

If you've ever felt that you wanted to understand the mechanics behind the precession of the equinoxes and the other important celestial phenomena of archaeo-astronomy and alternative examinations of mankind's past, then the Mathisen Corollary is for you. It doesn't matter if you are a high-school student, an Infantry soldier, a software developer, or a stock broker: you will understand enough celestial mechanics to watch the stars every night (and in the wee hours before the break of dawn) every day of the year.

Philologists, historians, and professional archaeologists are welcome too.