Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Columbus Day Should be on February 29

Recently, a friend of mine told me that she was a big fan of astrology and figuratively I bit my tongue. I then reminded myself that as long as she isn’t practicing human sacrifice, I don’t see how it does me or anyone else harm. I just hope that she doesn’t make any important life choices based on that particular body of knowledge. My own opinion is that astronomy begins where astrology ends, and that good knowledge of astronomy can be a lifesaver, as Chris Columbus demonstrated more than 500 years ago.
Everyone knows that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Few people know that in 1502, Columbus made his fourth and last trip to the new world, and on June 25, 1503 his ship ran aground on the north shore of Jamaica. For the next eight months, Columbus and his crew managed to stay alive due to the largesse of the local Indians. By February 1504, the indigenous population had grown tired of their uninvited guests, and Columbus feared for his safety. Fortunately for Columbus, he had a copy of Johannes Konigsberg’s book of lunar tables, which came in very handy.

On Feb 29th, 1504, Columbus informed the local chiefs that their inhospitality had angered the Christian God (and the Christian God’s mother!) and as a result, the Christian God was going to blot out the moon that night as a warning of what would befall them if they didn’t change their attitude. Sure enough, shortly after moonrise that night, the natives were horrified to see the moon turn red then disappear altogether. Columbus waited for 50 minutes before telling them that he had convinced the Christian god to restore the moon provided they stopped skimping on their food deliveries. That managed to keep Columbus’ party safe for another 4 months until another ship picked them up on June 29th, 1504. Columbus managed to return to Spain in December of that year, where he faced an irate Spanish board of inquiry over his lack of results in the new territories.

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