* Astronomical symbols in national flags

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Designed Raimundo Teixeira Mendes Miguel Lemos National Flag Federative Republic Brazil modified successor Flag Empire Brazil designed painter Jean Baptiste Debret addition astronomical symbols

SUNS, MOONS, STARS AND RELATED: ASTRONOMICAL SYMBOLS IN NAT
IONAL FLAGS

Many of the colors and sy
mbols of flags, especially in older countries, derive from royal houses, previous empires or other influences that have been assimilated over the centuries, so a direct symbolism is difficult. Still other countries have simply chosen symbols that are widespread, or strictly for their aesthetic value. Even though, many times the symbols on the flags indicate something concrete or practical.

SUN

The intense energy that bathes us (more than one kilowatt per square meter) is the source of life on Earth, as any farmer knows, and especially those of countries with harsh winters. Even the feast of St. John in the Latin American tradition is reminiscent of ancient pagan rituals of the winter solstice. 

For millennia, many empires such as the Kingdom of Egypt or the Inca Empire have introduced the worship of the Sun as the official religion. In the case of Argentina, the use of the sun as an official symbol begins on documents of the Assembly of 1813, and shortly after that it was used in Argentina's first currency, to finally reach the flag in 1818.

The Japanese flag has a less stylized sun, a red disc, the rising sun. The reddish color is due to small particles suspended in the air, stacked towards the horizon and that filter out other colors. Volcanic dust intensifies this filtering, so that the twilight sun becomes even redder.

The flag of Ecuador shows the Sun on a strip that contains symbols of four constellations (areas in the sky). One cannot see the stars that are momentarily behind the Sun, but as the Earth goes around the Sun, the stars that we do not see at a time will be visible later. The symbols that appear on the Ecuadorian flag correspond (distributed over a line called the ecliptic) to these stars of the months of March, April, May and June, important dates in the history of that country.

Flags which also have suns are the flag of Afghanistan (only the rays above the horizon), Antigua and Barbuda (with the radiant disk cut by the horizon), Bangladesh (in the style of the Japanese flag), Bolivia (emerging from behind the Cerro de Potosi; in addition, ten stars on the edge of the coat of arms representing the Departments, including the territory lost to Chile), Costa Rica (it appears cut, rising over the sea; in addition, seven stars), Philippines (with stylized heraldic rays ["rayonné"] and surrounded by three stars), Kazakhstan (illuminating a beautiful eagle in flight), Kiribati (cut by the sea horizon), Kyrgyzstan (with the traditional architectural crown of a nomadic tent superimposed on the disk), the Former (but current, the name is due to a dispute with Greece) Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (similar to the military "Rising Sun" flag of Japan; the current sun replaces a "Star of Vergina", associated with the family of Alexander the Great, and therefore protested by Greece up to deletion), Malawi (red, cut by the horizon), Republic of Moldova (between the horns of an aurochs [wild bull, "Bos primigenius", extinct in 1627]; there is also a crescent Moon, although an Orthodox cross links this flag to the West), Mongolia (with the Moon, also the symbol of Yin and Yang of Taoism and other symbols), Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Republic of China in Taiwan and Uruguay (the "Sun of May", shared with Argentina).       

MOON

In Muslim countries, it is common to see the symbol of the crescent Moon. On the one hand, there is a historical reason related to the capital of the Byzantine Empire (of which Tunisia was part), Constantinople, whose protector was the goddess Artemis, associated to the Moon. On the other hand, the Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar, where for example, the holy month of Ramadan, at the end of the year, begins with the sighting of a thin crescent Moon. The thin crescent Moon can only be seen at the end of the day, when also the planet Venus tends to be prominent.

The Croatian flag, above the main coat of arms has other small coats of arms where specifically the Moon and the planet Venus appear. 

The flag of Tunisia has a Sun, and within it the crescent Moon, and within the latter a star, although this configuration is impossible from an astronomical point of view. 

The flag of Iran has four stylized, tulip-shaped crescents.

Also have moons the flags of Algeria (with a star inside), Azerbaijan (with a star next to it), Brunei, Comoros (plus four stars inside it), Laos (in this case, a silvery full Moon), Malaysia (with a "Federal Star" next to it; it recalls the"diamond ring" seen in a solar eclipse, although in this case the story is different: the 14 points represent an ancient political division of the country), Maldives, Mauritania (with a star inside it), Nepal (the only national flag that is not rectangular, but consisting of two triangular pennants: the upper one contains the Moon, with a lump that is reminiscent of a personified face, which formerly was drawn in that place; the bottom pennant contains the Sun), Pakistan (with the popular star next to it), Palau (in this case the full Moon too, yellow as if it were rising), Turkey (the prototype of the flag with the thin crescent Moon with the star [or Venus?] next to it) and Turkmenistan (along with five stars).      

STARS

Stars have been used for millennia as symbols of good fortune. It is well known the debate that the Star of Bethlehem, immortalized by the Renaissance painter Giotto, could not have been Halley's comet, which he used as a model, because (unless in this case the divine sign has been directed against Herod the Great and not against Jesus of Nazareth) for ancient peoples comets used to be a grim symbol. The alternatives would be a conjunction (apparent crossing) between the planets Saturn and Jupiter, or a supernova (an exploding star). In antiquity, the planets were considered wandering stars (or even gods), so expressions like "morning star" (Venus) became commonplace. 

Flag with stars are the Paraguayan flag (the popular song calls it "the bonanza star"); the flag of Togo, whose star is associated with freedom; the flag of Ghana has a black star apparently derived from the logo of a shipping company controlled by black people at the beginning of the twentieth century; it represented a lodestar, usually Polaris. In navigation this is the most important star of all, because being almost directly above the North Pole its visibility is not affected by the rotation of the Earth: it remains almost fixed at the same point regardless of time or season. 
The flag of the United States of America, as it is well known, has a star for each of its 50 states; according to one House of Congress it symbolizes the heaven, "goal of man since time immemorial."

Stars also appear in the flags of Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina (which seem to spill out of the cloth), Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, People's Republic of China, Democratic Republic of Congo (somewhat reminiscent of the ones of other communist countries), North Korea, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominica (green ones, non-existent in the world of Astrophysics), Slovenia, Ethiopia (in the form of a "pentagram"), Grenada, Guinea-Bissau (a black one), Equatorial Guinea , Honduras, Israel (the famous "Star of David"), Jordan, Kosovo, Liberia, Marshall Islands (with a white diagonal stripe representing the eastern archipelago of Ratak ["dawn"] and another, orange, representing the western archipelago of Ralik ["sunset"]), Federated States of Micronesia, Morocco (also as a "pentagram": the "seal of Solomon"), Mozambique (crossed by a book, a hoe and the famous AK-47 machine gun), Myanmar, Panamá , Saint Kitts and Nevis, São Tomé and Príncipe (black ones), Solomon Islands, Senegal (a green one), Singapore (five, as in the flag of the Peoples's Republic of China, but within the crescent Moon), Syria (green ones), Somalia, Suriname, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Uzbekistan (twelve stars connected historically to the solar calendar, plus a crescent Moon), Venezuela (forming an arc), Vietnam and Zimbabwe (partially covered by the "Bird of Zimbabwe," an archeological motive of the ruins of the citadel of Great Zimbabwe).     

HEAVEN

Representations of parts of the sky are in the flag of Australia, which includes the Southern Cross. The term costellation is reserved for an area in the sky, and any object that is within this area is considered within the constellation. What is in the flag of Australia is actually what is known as an asterism, since only the brightest stars appear: Alpha Crucis, Beta Crucis, Gamma Crucis, Delta Crucis and Epsilon Crucis. The first word indicates the order of brightness, but in this flag all but Epsilon are drawn the same. To the left of the cross there is a large star with seven points, representing six Australian states plus the territories (and it is not Beta Centauri, despite the coincidence in position and apparent brightness). Incidentally, the outward-pointed edges that we see when looking at a star in the sky are optical effects caused by small imperfections in our eyes, especially in the pupil. Stars are actually seen from Earth as discrete points, although they are giant balls of gas burning billions of miles away. The Sun is the nearest star. The stars of the Southern Cross are seen from "down under" the Earth, that is, from the southern hemisphere, but not from the northern hemisphere. It attracted much attention from the Europeans who ventured into these latitudes.

The flag of Portugal has no stars but an armillary sphere, an instrument like a globe used to study the sky. It looks like a hollow cage made of rings, which represent among others things celestial parallels and meridians: the so-called lines of declination and right ascension. Knowledge of the sky was vital for the great sea voyages of exploration. It is a testament to the time when Portugal was a world power.

The most striking flag from the astronomical point of view is perhaps the flag of Brazil. It has 27 stars, each representing a state, as in the U.S. flag, but as in the flag of Australia they represent real stars, with real names and positions: those are the ones which were over Rio de Janeiro at 8:30h of 15 November 1889, on the very day of the proclamation of the Republic. Sizes range faithfully from first magnitude (brightest) to fifth (faintest) of apparent brightness. The lower one is Sigma Octantis, which is analogous to Polaris of the northern hemisphere, and represents the Federal District (where the capital city is located); around it rotate the other "states": Alpha Crucis represents São Paulo, Beta Crucis Rio de Janeiro, Beta Trianguli Australis Santa Catarina, Gamma Trianguli Australis represents Paraná, Sirius represents Mato Grosso, Procyon Amazonas, Antares is Piauí, Canopus is Goiás, etc. The star above the band is Spica, and represents the state of Pará, which reaches the northern hemisphere.

The heaven is also represented in the flags of Nauru (with the line of the Equator and a star immediately below it, representing the country's geographical position), New Zealand (a red Southern Cross, with the bigger one being Alpha and the smaller Delta, without Epsilon Crucis) Papua New Guinea (the Southern Cross, including a smaller Epsilon), Samoa (the Southern Cross, with all the stars of different sizes, except Beta and Gamma) and Tuvalu (nine stars in the corrrect geographical position of the nine main islands, whenever this flag is hung vertically).

Regardless of the meaning of each of these national symbols, it is unlikely that the Patriots have thought of "astral charts" when they made them. Therefore, it seems futile to try to make astrology and see whether or not they have brought luck to the respective nations. Even because in the end, we see the brightness of the stars according to our own colored glasses.

A. L.

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 8 July 2006. Drawing: Designed by Raimundo Teixeira Mendes and Miguel Lemos, and drawn by Décio Vilares, the National Flag of the Federative Republic of Brazil is a modified successor of the Flag of the Empire of Brazil (itself designed by the painter Jean Baptiste Debret) with the addition of the astronomical symbols. Credit: Presidency of the Federative Republic of Brazil.

A scientific, very respectful and well-thought reply to the popular question "Do you believe in UFOs?"  This book evolved as a reply to one of the most frequent questions that I used to hear from the public when I was working in an astronomical observatory: "Do you believe in UFOs?". That seems an odd question to ask to scientists, but after researching conscientiously for about a full year, I discovered, to my surprise, that mainstream Science has a few things to say about the topic.  This book is not about conspiracy theory, "NASA is hiding the truth", or much less, that flying saucers have already landed on the lawn of the White House. Rather, it is a book about what is the most rational reply that a scientist, or in my case, a science writer, can offer when people insist on asking that question.  Of course, "Do you believe in UFOs?" is, understandable, one of the most popular questions that common people ask (even if silently, to themselves) when they raise their eyes and look at the stars. So it has to be treated respectfully, and why not, given a well-thought reply.

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