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

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 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

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.