Geek Trivia: First to the Fourth

What artifact suggests that Native Americans may have also documented the Crab Nebula supernova?

Every year, the United States celebrates its collective birthday—July 4th—in the usual fashion: Detonating enough fireworks to shoot down a small national air force. But once this annual episode of pyromaniacal patriotism is behind us, we Yankees—and all five of my international readers—can take a more objective look at the other famous set of sky-lighting fireworks that have occurred on this date: The Crab Nebula.

On July 4, 1054, Chinese astronomers observed the appearance of a "guest star" in the constellation of Taurus. Arab observatories noted a similar phenomenon, though there are no records of European scholars noticing the celestial event. That's more than a little surprising, since the "guest star" was bright enough to appear in broad daylight for three and a half weeks and provided enough light to read by at night.

What Europe failed to remark upon was a good old-fashioned supernova. A star about eight to 12 times the mass of our sun, situated about 6,300 light years from Earth, exhausted its nuclear fuel and collapsed in on itself.

In the crush of the implosion, the remaining stellar mass heated to the point of a massive explosion 10 billion times as bright as our own sun. If the same star had exploded the same way a mere 50 light years from Earth, it could have extinguished all life on the planet.

As it was, the supernova occurred in precisely the right place at precisely the right time for several human cultures to observe it. The distance was safely away from Earth such that the light reached us when relatively sophisticated star-watching societies had appeared in history.

This particular supernova also had some get-noticed advantages because it left behind two significant bits of fallout: The Crab Nebula and a pulsar. The nebula is not only ever-expanding and changing shape, but the clockwork electromagnetic emissions of the pulsar visibly illuminate it, effectively creating an unmissable astronomic eye-grabber.

Though the nebula was only visible to the naked eye until 1056, its two-year exhibition in the night sky was the ultimate example of naturally occurring Fourth of July fireworks. Somewhat appropriately, there's even evidence that Native Americans might have caught this foreshadowing event—and recorded that first July 4th display in an ancient artifact.

WHAT ARTIFACT SUGGESTS THAT NATIVE AMERICANS MAY HAVE ALSO DOCUMENTED THE CRAB NEBULA SUPERNOVA?

What ancient artifact presents evidence that Native Americans might have recorded the appearance of the supernova that created the pulsar-illuminated Crab Nebula?

A petroglyph found in Chaco Canyon National Monument in New Mexico depicts a scene that archaeologists and astronomers believe may represent the appearance of the Crab Nebula supernova. While there's still considerable debate as to whether these images actually refer to the 1054 guest star, they are stunning nonetheless.

Carved by the Anasazi tribe, these petroglyphs depict a handprint, an eight-armed sunburst, and a down-turned crescent. To the untrained eye, they are fascinating but only vaguely astronomic symbols. Yet when one realizes that these are Anasazi symbols—created by a people that also built the Sun Dagger, a crude stellar calendar constructed from stone slabs—the petroglyph demands a closer look.

If you extrapolate the relative position of the Earth and moon to July 4, 1054 (a formation that replicates itself roughly every 18.5 years) and then situate yourself on the mesa shelf where the petroglyphs reside, the images' possible relationship to the Crab Nebula becomes more obvious. Simply wait until the hand image is pointing at the moon in the night sky. Then use the crescent and star images as a reference, locating the star that should be visible a set distance to the left of the moon.

Today, you'll see nothing. But if you were to peer through a telescope at that exact patch of sky, you'd be staring smack-dab at the Crab Nebula—and the same point in the heavens where the guest star would have appeared on July 4, 1054.

To be sure, there's a certain level of inference at work here, but if the Chaco Canyon petroglyphs do depict the Crab Nebula supernova, it wouldn't have been the first such astronomic documentation by Native Americans. Half a century earlier, in the spring of 1006, another supernova created the brightest stellar event in all of recorded human history. Noted by Chinese, Arabic, European, and Native American sky-watchers, this related guest star appeared below the constellation of Scorpio.

A petroglyph found in White Tanks Regional Park in Arizona depicts a bright starburst just below a crude constellation image of the stars that comprise Scorpio, precisely where the guest star would have appeared in 1006. Carved by the Hohokam tribe of the American Southwest, this petroglyph shows that ancient Native Americans had an eye for guest stars, making the Crab Nebula petroglyphs seem more plausible—and making for some stellar Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the June 14 edition of Geek Trivia, "Ahead of its time(piece)." TechRepublic member Tom Wigginton scolded me for botching an ancient inventor's biography.

"Archimedes was not Carthaginian—he was from Syracuse, a Greek colony in Sicily."

OK, I've got to start fact-checking better. I knew that Archimedes fought on the side of Carthage during the Punic Wars (and Romans killed him for his trouble), but that's not the same as being Carthaginian—my mistake. Thanks for the info, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.