Lecture by Dr. Bill M. Mak- Associate Professor at Kyoto University

Date: Friday, November 11, 2016, 3:00 pm

Venue: Temple University, 211 Anderson Hall, 1835 N. 12th Street, Philadelphia


Since the Six Dynasties, a large influx of foreigners from different parts of Eurasia brought to China exotic arts and goods, novel ideas and knowledge. Among these was the astral science of the “West”, a highly idiosyncratic body of astronomical knowledge including meteorology, metrology, calendrics, astronomical measurement, to the more arcane arts of omen reading, apotropaic magic and horoscopy. The new “astral science” of the West was drastically different from the Chinese’s and became highly sought after by the progressive rulers and elites. The legacy and impact of this early contact of the East and the West has remained largely unknown to the scholarly world until manuscripts and fragments from the Silk Road were rediscovered and compared with texts in Greek, Sanskrit, Syriac, Sogdian and other languages.

Bill M. Mak completed his linguistic training at McGill University (B.A. Hons.) specializing in Sanskrit and East Asian languages and received his Ph.D. in Indian literature and Buddhist philology from Peking University. Mak held research and teaching positions at Hamburg University, University of Hong Kong and Kyoto Sangyo University, before his current appointment as Associate Professor at Kyoto University and Visiting Research Scholar at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University.


The Mystery (or Mistake?) of the Grand Central Station Celestial Ceiling

The starry ceiling was one of the artistic marvels of New York’s Grand Central Station when it opened in 1913. The constellations are based largely on Johann Bayer’s star atlas Uranometria (1603), which is the first Western atlas to cover the entire celestial sphere. Astronomically the Grand Central atlas is reversed from East to West and it was widely believed to be a mistake made when the artists transferred to the ceiling the draft provided by Columbia University’s Harold Jacoby, professor of astronomy. While some had argued that this corresponded to the ancient practice of representing the Heaven from without instead of from within, a commemorative postcard which is supposed to represent the original design indicated that the constellations were indeed painted backward.

The atlas contains also a number of additional quirks which are of historical and general curiosity: (non-)reversion of Orion, the Triangulum Minus (non-standard constellation) was added during the 1945 restoration, and the hole above Pisces left from the time when the Redstone missile was exhibited in the Main Concourse in 1957, after the Soviet Sputnik was launched in the same year.

Photos 1: Grand Central Terminal celestial ceiling. The ceiling shows “left-to-right” from Aquarius to Cancer (here only to Orion, below Taurus).

Photo 2: Comparison of Orion with that of Uranometria (from Daniel Thurber, Untapped Cities)

Photo 3: Commemorative postcard from the “New Grand Central Terminal”

Lecture on “Buddhist Astral Science in Asia” at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. April 29, 2016.

 Buddhist Astral Science in Asia

Topics include Buddhist cosmology, Buddhist calendars, sources and transmission of astronomical and astrological systems.