John J. Miller has a really interesting piece on Christmas trivia, which includes this tidbit:
What was the Star of Bethlehem?
Would you believe it’s Jupiter? That’s what one astronomer thinks. I find his theory plausible, and wrote about for NRO two years ago here.
Jupiter of course, was the destination of the spaceship Discovery in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke intended (among many other things) to be an alternate look at man’s relationship with God.
Kubrick himself told an interviewer the year after its release:
The God concept is at the heart of this film. It’s unavoidable that it would be, once you believe that the universe is seething with advanced forms of intelligent life. Just think about it for a moment. There are a hundred billion stars in the galaxy and a hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe. Each star is a sun, like our own, probably with planets around them. The evolution of life, it is widely believed, comes as an inevitable consequence of a certain amount of time on a planet in a stable orbit which is not too hot or too cold. First comes chemical evolution — chance rearrangements of basic matter, then biological evolution.
Think of the kind of life that may have evolved on those planets over the millennia, and think, too, what relatively giant technological strides man has made on earth in the six thousand years of his recorded civilization — a period that is less than a single grain of sand in the cosmic hourglass. At a time when man’s distant evolutionary ancestors were just crawling out of the primordial ooze, there must have been civilizations in the universe sending out their starships to explore the farthest reaches of the cosmos and conquering all the secrets of nature. Such cosmic intelligences, growing in knowledge over the aeons, would be as far removed from man as we are from the ants. They could be in instantaneous telepathic communication throughout the universe; they might have achieved total mastery over matter so that they can telekinetically transport themselves instantly across billions of light years of space; in their ultimate form they might shed the corporeal shell entirely and exist as a disembodied immortal consciousness throughout the universe.
Once you begin discussing such possibilities, you realize that the religious implications are inevitable, because all the essential attributes of such extraterrestrial intelligences are the attributes we give to God. What we’re really dealing with here is, in fact, a scientific definition of God. And if these beings of pure intelligence ever did intervene in the affairs of man, so far removed would their powers be from our own understanding. How would a sentient ant view the foot that crushes his anthill — as the action of another being on a higher evolutionary scale than itself? Or as the divinely terrible intercession of God?
Since Stanley died in 1999, I wonder if Clarke knows about Jupiter possibly being the Star of Bethlehem, and what he thinks about it. Since Jupiter was their second choice of a destination (Douglas Trumbull and his special effects boffins couldn’t get the rings right, saving Saturn to be used in Trumbull’s early 1970s eco-sci-fi doomfest Silent Running), it’s certainly a fun coincidence.