A Very Welcome Diversion, 800 Years in the Making
It has been nearly 800 years since its last visible occurrence. For those of us old enough to remember, it was on March 4, 1226, just before dawn. To refresh our memories, which of course fade over time, that year King Charles I of Naples was born and the Italian Saint Francis of Assisi died. Louis IV of France began his rule. The Chicago Cubs had yet to win a World Series. Yet, here we are again, in little more than a blink of an eye.
Today, Monday, December 21, the winter solstice, a day after my mother’s birthday, Saturn and Jupiter will be aligned closer to the Earth than they have been since 1623 (though that event was not visible, given that it occurred during daylight).¹ The conjunction is visible to the naked eye, just after sundown, in the southwestern sky.
It has been a long wait. For those fortunate enough to witness this awe-inspiring event, it will have been worth it. It is a sight to behold, one not to miss.
If you take the time to look, and I certainly hope you do, you will see Jupiter and Saturn side-by-side, nearly touching. At least that is how they will appear. Not to fear, their orbits have not changed and they remain a healthy distance from each other, where ‘healthy distance’ is about 400 million miles. Their orbital alignment — their conjunction — is what causes this breathtaking event. What makes it that much more special is that they will be closer to Earth than they have been in nearly 800 years. It is a moment of wonder, a marvelous opportunity to pause, to take a deep breath, and to marvel at what many consider to be an incredibly romantic event. Even if you are not an astrophysicist.
Weather permitting, I have been following the approaching conjunction for the last week. With all of the political nonsense that we have been bombarded with over these many weeks since the election, it is a welcome relief to be diverted, comforted even, by two immense planets coming together in a dazzlingly gorgeous display of celestial mechanics. It is nearly impossible to take in their splendor and, while doing so, try to name the 126 House Republicans who supported Texas’s attempt to upend the presidential election² or begin to fathom the personal hostility that caused the mayor of Dodge City, Kansas to resign over her mandate for citizens to wear a mask to attempt to control the pandemic³ or the many environmental policies that the current administration has rolled back during its reign⁴ including, most recently, the new showerhead standards the president signed into law — all designed to reduce efficiency⁵ — or the president’s ongoing post-election con of his own supporters (now estimated to be approaching $300 million in funds for his personal use)⁶ or the wild possibility of the president invoking martial law to overturn democracy⁷ or Tucker Carlson sowing seeds of doubt about the new vaccines.⁸ Or, on a far more serious note, a pandemic that is ravaging the country and, in the process, causing unparalleled and widespread heartache.
We are a nation deeply divided, at war with itself. At a time when our very lives and livelihoods depend on it, we still cannot agree on the need to avoid social gatherings and the admonitions of epidemiologists who know just a bit more than most of us about how to control and eventually eliminate the scourge that is COVID. It is saddening and, frankly, frightening that the debate continues to wage over the efficacy of wearing a mask in public. All while people are getting sick and dying at ever-more staggering rates. The coronavirus will not go away on its own. It is having too much fun, all at our expense.
Yet, in the midst of this unique and difficult holiday season, during which many stand in food lines and millions are unemployed and face eviction, we have something amazing to divert our attention, if only for a short period. Thanks to Jupiter and Saturn and their elliptical orbits, we are audience to an event that has not been visible in hundreds of years. Take advantage of it, enjoy it. And while doing so, let your heart melt. Let it feel for the plight of others, many who are struggling. Let it allow for a tad more patience, a modicum of compassion for those with whom you disagree, a willingness to give help to the less fortunate, and a belief that only together can we survive.
Mark your calendars. The next conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will be on March 15, 2080. I deeply hope we are a far more healthy, peaceful country well before then.
We will be taking the next two weeks to enjoy the holidays and the New Year. Look for a new edition of The Monday Minute (or two) on Monday, January 4, 2021. In the meantime, may your holidays be joyous and your New Year healthy and happy.