It’s hard to imagine Christmas without stars. They perch at the top of fir trees, glitter from greeting cards and dangle festively over shopping precincts. This year, even the John Lewis advert and Selfridges’ Oxford Street window display — two of the holiest icons of our modern, commercialised Christmas —both have astronomical themes.
The origin of this celestial obsession is of course the Star of Bethlehem, whose apparition, according to the Gospel of Matthew, first alerted the Three Wise Men to the birth of Jesus, then guided them across the desert to pay homage to the new-born Messiah. For centuries scholars have speculated as to whether this founding tale of Christianity might have some basis in historical fact but, in an age in which religion and science are often caricatured as standing in stark opposition to one another, what are we to make of a book that uses science to investigate one of the Bible’s best-loved stories?
The title of The Great Christ Comet may give the impression that this is some sort of fire-and-brimstone religious tract.