Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Time travel

In May of 1503, on his fourth voyage to the New World, after many trials and adventures, Christopher Columbus sailed with two ships from Panama, intending to stop at Hispaniola for refitting before returning home to Spain. Crippled by storm and riddled by worms, the little fleet was run ashore on the north coast of Jamaica. Columbus sent twelve men in canoes to seek rescue from Hispaniola, 200 miles to the east. Then, for months, he waited with the remainder of his men.

To obtain food, the Spaniards bartered beads and mirrors with the Jamaican natives. Eventually, the Jamaicans tired of trinkets and balked at providing provisions for the stranded sailors. Columbus saw a solution to the problem. He had with him a copy of Regiomontanus' Ephemerides, which contained a prediction for an eclipse of the moon at moonrise on the leap-year night of February 29, 1504. Columbus called a meeting of the local chiefs and declared that if food were not forthcoming he would cause the moon to rise "inflamed with wrath." As he predicted, on the appointed night, the moon rose the color of blood.

I told this story before, in The Soul of the Night. That was a long time ago, in 1984, before the advent of powerful personal computers. I came across the Columbus episode as I wrote yesterday's post, and I thought, "Hey, I can watch that moonrise and see what the Jamaican natives saw."

And so, to my Starry Night Pro astronomy software.

And yes, at about half-past seven on the evening of February 29, 1504, I watch on my computer screen as the full moon rises almost due east, the color of blood as the sky gets completely dark. It climbs the sky for an hour or so, halfway between Regulus and Spica, stained a spooky red by sunlight refracted through the Earth's atmosphere. Then, as the Jamaicans watched and at Columbus' feigned command, the moon slowly reverts to its usual brilliant white.

Neat! How lovely that the night sky for millennia into the past and future is available to me with the stroke of a few keys. I am there with Columbus and his hungry, stranded men. Perhaps the Spaniards were as awed by the spectacle as the Jamaicans. I'm a little bit awed just watching it on my computer.

And now I see something that I did not know about when I wrote the Columbus story back in 1984, and which as far as I know has not been mentioned in the historical record. On the night of the blood-red lunar spectacular, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were gathered in a lovely conjunction in Gemini. That, of course, would have been something the sailors and natives too had been watching during the preceding nights and would continue to watch in nights to come, as the three bright planets performed a slow magical waltz in the body of the Twins.