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Are you an Astronomer?

04/01/2008

Scene II
Gaspar to Balthazar
“May God save you Sir, are you an Astronomer?”
In the second half of the 12th century a short play called the Drama of the Three Wise Men (El Auto de los Reyes Magos) was written by an anonymous author, who was probably a monk. The play is thought to be one of the first written in the language that we know today as Castilian Spanish.

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It is a very short piece in which the three wise men, each of them far from his home land, see the star of Bethlehem and, after checking that it is indeed a new star, make their way towards it in the hope of finding the child. Their paths are destined to cross and, when they meet one another, the question they ask is “Are you an Astronomer?”

There is nothing particularly unusual about the play. It follows in a long tradition of stories, known as the Ordo Stellae, about the discovery of the star of Bethlehem by the three Wise Men. However, scholars have pointed out one feature that differentiates this one from the others: the three Wise Men wanted to follow what they thought was a new star, but they were not content to trust the evidence of their own eyes. They were so concerned with the truth that they carried out new observations to check what they had seen using the methods of science.

Imagine what they would say today if they could use a telescope to follow what appeared to them to be a new star, but was probably in fact a comet crossing the sky. What would they say if they could come to the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS and check, in a single observation, whether this really was the "star" they were searching for?

The Gran Telescopio CANARIAS is an enormous Meccano set, an intricate metal framework topped with a colossal eye. The commissioning process at the telescope is now entering its final phases, with night-time testing of the tracking control system about to start. We will examine the telescope's breathing and the liquid flowing through its veins, and listen to the immense structure beating a silent rhythm as it moves with the sky to follow the light...

When the observation slit in the dome opens up to the La Palma night-time the astronomers will all be in the control rooms, watching their computer screens for the information coming in. Perhaps one time though someone will stay in the telescope chamber, to look up at the sky like the very first observers and feel the universe looking back, and to dream of what its millions of eyes will tell us about our past and our future. We are impatient, we admit it. We cannot wait to find out what secrets this immense Wise Man will show us, what gifts this telescope will bring.

The text of the Auto de los Reyes Magos lay undiscovered for centuries (until 1785). This tiny play, a forerunner of Spanish theatre, was written on the back of a codex kept at Toledo Cathedral. It was an unnoticed "diversion" on the back page of a serious manuscript. 

Since its discovery the play has been the subject of much comment and analysis. Some think it is complete whilst others believe it is unfinished. Scholars have also been unable to agree about when they play was written. It  keeps on asking questions and the experts keep looking for answers. 

It is yet another example of our endless need discover, to understand, to find answers and, more than anything, to take in the beauty that is everywhere around us. If, in these hectic times we live in, you stop to pause for a moment and feel the need to breathe, try looking up at the sky. You might even find yourself being asked that question: "Are you an Astronomer?"

Link to the text of the Auto de los Reyes Magos (in Spanish)

Natalia R. Zelman

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