The greatest Fourth-of-July display in American history

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It’s very late.  The waning hours of night have an otherwordliness about them, like people aren’t supposed to be here.  Everybody else is asleep.  All is still.  Even a moth can be startling.

It’s still dark, but it’s time to go out now.

The water has to be back here by dawn, because the little kids will start waking up then.  It would be wise to start hauling back some extra, too, because the river might not flow for the whole summer.  And nobody wants to be lugging those big, heavy baskets in the blistering heat of mid-day.  So breathe in, stretch out, and summon that energy.

This is actually a pretty good job to have, though.  It’s cool and refreshing out there late at night.  It even smells better than it does during the day.  It’s a serene walk on the dirt road over to the river, and as you get closer you can hear it running, along with some other sounds off in the distance: a hoot, a few croaks, and on some nights the bay of a coyote.  You and the three guys you’re going over there with won’t encounter anyone else.

But you certainly won’t be alone.  There is lots of life out in the dark, and mostly nothing to be too scared of.  There are the jackrabbits with long ears:

Lepus californicus, the long-eared jackrabbit
Long-eared jackrabbit (Lepus californicus)

Busy little ring-tailed cats:

Ring-tailed cat (Bassariscus astutus)
Ring-tailed cat (Bassariscus astutus)

Possibly a shy porcupine:

North American porcupine  (Erethizon dorsatum)
North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

And a puma?

Mountain Lion (Puma concolor)
Mountain lion (Puma concolor)

As you walk towards the river, you’re facing east, and on those nights when the Rabbit in the Moon decides to appear, it’s from here that he bounds upward into the field of the sky.  If you stand still and watch his bright face closely against the trees, you can see it creeping its way through the branches, very slowly.  The nights when he appears in a full circle are the best, of course, because you don’t have to carry any fire to see where you’re going.

The rabbit in the Moon
The Rabbit in the Moon

The horizon up ahead is starting to show a dim pinkish glow.  A couple of whippoorwills have noticed that.  Whip-poo-oo-oo-weee!  Whip-poo-oo-oo-weee!

And he is coming up tonight, this time as a slender crescent.  But something very, very different is going on here.  A piercingly bright companion, throwing out rays in all directions, is running with him!

What is that?  Is it coming this way?  Will it land on Earth?  Is another Moon being born?  Is this a look into daytime through a hole in the night sky?

An artist
An artist’s impression of the supernova of July 4-5, 1054 over what is now New Mexico

Whatever this visitor is, it’s so bright that it will remain quite visible after you return home, even after the Sun comes up.  It will go on to be apparent in broad daylight for 23 days, long after the Moon lets it go, and it will linger around at night for almost two years.

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Star chart of the New Mexico eastern horizon toward dawn on July 5, 1054
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This was the supernova of 1054, one of the most brilliant astronomical displays ever witnessed on Earth.  We know from written Chinese records that it first appeared the morning of July 4 (Julian calendar).  That suggests it had been visible from North America the morning of the 4th as well, but probably not yet as brightly as on the 5th.  Supernovae brighten quickly at first, by orders of magnitude within a week, so one day can make a very big difference.

Light curves for various supernova types.  When they first become visible, they are rapidly brightening
Light curves for various supernova types.  When they first become visible, they are rapidly brightening

It would still have been accompanied by the Moon on the 4th, but not as compellingly closely as on the morning of the 5th.  So its appearance toward dawn on the 5th would likely have been its dramatic debut.

The Chinese wrote that it had a reddish-white color, surrounded by a pale yellow glow, with rays protruding in all directions, and that it became four to six times as bright as Venus.  Thanks to these observations, we can imagine what it might have looked like.  I got as close as I could in the main diary image scale-wise, but I think the artist above did a better job capturing the pageantry of its appearance than I did!

There’s only one place in the world we know of where a picture of the 1054 supernova event was drawn that still survives: in America, by our own compatriots the Mimbres people, as just one example of their fabulous stylized pottery of the 11th Century.  They lived in what is now the Southwest corner of New Mexico.

Where the Mimbres and Ancestral Pueblo cultures were located

To understand their depiction of the event, it’s important to know that the Mimbres strongly associated the rabbit with the Moon, as many cultures have and still do.  We don’t know what their particular legend about that was, but the rabbit-Moon association is reflected in a number of stories from around the world.  One of the most well-known, and my favorite, comes from the the Indian Buddhist Jataka tales and is but one illustration of people’s emotional rabbit-Moon connection.

The rabbit in this story is a Bodhisattva, one who has attained Enlightenment but willingly takes on an earthly form in order to help others.  Śakra, lord of the Devas, once heard Rabbit telling his friends Monkey, Otter, and Jackal that they should practice virtue and give alms to those in need.  But Śakra had heard a lot of empty talk before, so he disguised himself as an ascetic beggar to test the virtue of the animals.  When he asked the animals for alms, Monkey offered mangoes he had collected, Otter offered fish he had caught, and Jackal offered a lizard and a pot of milk he had found.  But Rabbit only knew how to gather grass, and he knew this could not feed the beggar.  So Rabbit offered his own body, throwing himself into a fire the beggar had prepared.  Śakra was so moved by Rabbit’s generosity that he instantly cooled the fire so that Rabbit was not burned, then revealed his identity and said, “Rabbit, you would offer your own life to help someone as ordinary and low as a beggar.  Because of that, I will place your likeness on the face of the Moon, so that your selflessness will be known by all creatures everywhere throughout the ages.”

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Around the year 1000 C.E., the Mimbres began painting black-and-white, highly stylized — even cartoonish — images on bowls that they used for many purposes, even burial.  The rabbit was strongly associated with the Moon in these images, sometimes quite directly:

Mimbres bowl with rabbit and Moon
The Rabbit-Moon bowl

The Mimbres observed and counted celestial phenomena as well, as in this “moon bug” plate, which shows a bug/tadpole with a crescent-outlined face, surrounded by four cycles of 28 rectangles plus gaps for the New Moon and Full Moon, going back and forth on a sort of graph over the 30 units, just like the cycle of the Moon:

The "bug plate" showing four lunar cycles
The Bug/Tadpole-Lunar Cycle bowl

We still make graphs like this now!

A plot of the lunar cycle
Thirty marks that rise and fall over the cycle

All of this brings us to one unknown Mimbres observer of the 1054 supernova whose pictorial account of it, on a bowl, is the only one we know of anywhere in the world.  It shows how the rabbit, hunched into a crescent, brought the starburst with him into the night sky, and how it lasted 23 days in daylight.  We know from various dating constraints that this bowl must have been made and used between 1000 and 1070 C.E.  The full bowl:

The Mimbres plate that may depict the 1054 supernova
The full-bowl version

And a sharper look at the stylization depicted on it:

The rabbit-as-moon-with-superova pictogram

If you follow the score marks clockwise around the perimeter of the starlike object at the rabbit’s feet, you see that the lines are set apart fairly regularly until we are almost around the circle.  Then they get slightly farther apart after the twentieth one, so as to make sure the correct total number of scores are placed around the star: 23.

Where the Chinese had described it, the Mimbres had drawn it.  Found two and a half feet underground by University of Minnesota researchers in the Mimbres region between 1929 and 1931, this bowl is now housed at UM’s Weisman Art Museum.  It is a national treasure.

If it were up to me, this design would be featured on a piece of American currency.  We non-native Americans should embrace the early history of our adopted home much, much more than we do.  Not as mascots or caricatures, but as national symbols we are genuinely proud of, symbols that help present our face to the world.  Symbols that define the eternal vibe of this great continent.  What could be more American than the original Americans?

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We now know that the supernova of July 4-5, 1054 became the beloved Crab Nebula:

The Crab Nebula, visible light
The Crab Nebula, visible-light view

At its center remains a pulsar, a neutron star with about as much mass as the Sun, but compressed into the size of a small town.   This pulsar spins on its axis an incredible 30 times a second.  The outer edges of the nebula continue to expand at nearly 1,000 miles per second:

crab34.gif
h/t to SnowWolf, who cited this gif in the comments!

The “pulsar” has that name because its light appears to pulse, due to its spinning, from our vantage point:

A slow-motion animation of the Crab Pulsar taken at 800 nm wavelength (near-infrared) using a Lucky Imaging camera from Cambridge University, showing the bright pulse and fainter interpulse.
Slow-motion near-infrared view of the pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula

If you look only at the X-rays emitted by the Crab Nebula, you can easily see the pulsar at the center, surrounded by a whorl:

The Crab Nebula, X-ray view
The Crab Nebula, X-ray view

To give you an idea of just how powerful the explosion witnessed in 1054 must have been, it was found about a year ago that the pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula emits light to this day with the highest energy of any known source.  The authors of that study wanted you to know that a single photon collected here on Earth from the Crab Nebula, at 430 TeV (tera-electron-volts), had as much energy as a falling ping-pong ball.  A teensy photon with that much energy is like an ant possessing the wherewithal to move — oh, I don’t know — let’s say a rubber-tree plant.

Scaling it up to some real terms:  If you had a 100-watt-equivalent LED bulb that emitted Crab-pulsar photons instead of emitting its usual visible light, and you flipped it on for just one second, that pulse of light you just generated would contain enough energy to lift all the water in Lake Superior to a height of 460 feet.  That’s … bright.

Lake Superior
Lake Superior is really, really big

Several nearby cultures may have drawn the event, too, the best-known example being a pictograph in Ancestral Pueblo country:

Ancestral Pueblo petroglyph at Chaco Canyon, NM that some believe depicts the supernova of 1054
Ancestral Pueblo pictograph at Chaco Canyon, NM that some believe depicts the supernova of 1054

But even if that’s not what this depicts, it’s still a fascinating piece of art well worth preserving.

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We’ve had some impressive Fourths here in modern America, to be sure….

John Adams certainly wanted it that way.  His letter to Abigail of July 3, 1776:

John Adams
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

Adams had meant the previous day, July 2, when Congress first approved the independence resolution.  It’s just that the written Declaration has the July 4 date of transcription right on it in big print there and everything, so it’s difficult not to use that as The Big Day:

The heading of the Declaration of Independence
They wrote the 4th right on there

And celebrated that day was, in grand fashion.  The first Independence fireworks in the U.S. were set off on July 4, 1777, in Philadelphia, and it was apparently quite a gala:

crab32.JPG
“…there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”

OK, very impressive, Philadelphia!  I’ll say that’s good enough for 2nd place.

But thanks to the drawing of a thousand-year-old friend, you and I know which was the most spectacular Fourth-of-July display in all of American history.

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