Sunday, January 22, 2006

The clear puddle of reality

Astrologers always drag out poor old Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, in support of their bogus craft. See, they say, even such an eminent scientist as Kepler was a believer.

But Kepler practiced astrology only as a matter of financial necessity. His heart certainly wasn't in it. He wrote: "A mind accustomed to mathematical deduction, when confronted with the faulty foundations [of astrology] , resists a long, long time, like an obstinate mule, until compelled by beating and curses to put its foot into that dirty puddle."

Kepler's distrust of the "dirty puddle" hasn't rubbed off on Americans. Polls show that half of Americans are open to astrological influences in their lives. Most newspapers and magazines offer horoscopes. Even those people who say "Oh, I just do it for fun" will sometimes admit that "Well, maybe there's something to it."

Why should astrology buffs have all the fun looking up their birth signs in horoscopes? Herewith, a horoscope (of sorts) for real stargazers, a potpourri of light-hearted zodiac trivia for people who groove on the wonder and beauty of the real night sky. I'll start with Scorpio, because that's what I'm looking at these days when I step out on the deck in the hour before dawn.

SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 22) Scorpio's pattern of stars actually suggests the thing they are supposed to represent, a scorpion with a curled stinger tail. This is the beast that slew Orion the Hunter. Orion boasted he would kill every animal on earth. To prevent this calamity, the gods sent a scorpion to kill Orion with its sting. Then, both hunter and scorpion where placed among the stars, but on opposite sides of the sky so they would never fight again. Look for Scorpio rising in the east as Orion sets in he west.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 23-Dec. 21) Star clouds, nebulas, and clusters abound in Sagittarius. There is no richer part of the sky to scan with binoculars. When we look into Sagittarius, we are looking into the very heart of our Milky Way galaxy. The pattern of stars looks more like a teapot than a centaur with a bow. The star Nunki, in the teapot's handle, has an ancient Babylonian name. It takes us right back to the origin of the zodiac in the river valleys of the Near East, 5000 years ago.

CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19) The zodiac constellations are certainly not famous because their stars are bright, and inconspicuous Capricorn is a perfect example. The zodiac constellations mark the sun's apparent path through the sky in the course of the year. In ancient times, the sun was in Capricorn when it was furthest south -- mid-winter for inhabitants of the northern hemisphere. The curious figure of Capricorn, half-goat, half-fish, may have been suggested by sacrifices made at winter's end to restore the fertility of earth and sea.

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18) The Water Carrier is another ancient constellation that goes back to Babylonia, and suggests the importance of water in desert regions of the Near East. Nearby in the sky are other watery constellations: Pisces the fish, Eridanus the river, Cetus the whale, and the sea-goat Capricorn with its splashing tail. Two stars in Aquarius have names that mean "lucky"; in the desert, lucky meant wet.

PISCES (Feb. 19-Mar. 20) You will need a perfectly dark night to see any of the stars of this constellation. If you are born under the sign of Pisces, the sun was in Pisces on your birthday -- or at least that would have been true thousands of years ago when astrology was invented. Today, because of the slow wobble of the Earth's axis, the sun is in Aquarius on the day you where born. This slow shift of signs doesn't seem to bother astrologers.

ARIES (Mar.21-Apr. 20) According to Greek myth, Aries is the ram of the golden fleece. If so, we must assume that when the ram was sacrificed and the fleece removed by Phrixus, only the bare bones were placed in the heavens, for little Aries is the zodiac's least conspicuous constellation. Thousands of years ago the sun was in Aries on the first day of spring, and the Ram stood first among the twelve signs. It retains that pride of place in astrology, but the sun is now in Pisces as spring begins.

TAURUS (Apr. 21-May 20) With Taurus we enter the brilliant "winter" constellations, the constellations that dominate our evening sky in wintertime. Taurus is best known to stargazers for the cluster of stars called the Pleiades. On an ordinary night, most people see six stars in the cluster. I've seen nine on nights of spectacular clarity (back when my eyes were sharper than they are today). Can you see more? There are actually hundreds of stars in the cluster, a grand sight in a telescope.

GEMINI (May 21-June 20) Castor and Pollux, the two bright stars of Gemini, are twin sons of divine Zeus and mortal Leda, and brothers of Helen whose face launched a thousand ships and caused the Trojan War. The brothers were once revered as protectors of sailors at sea. If you use the expression "by jimminy," you are swearing as the Greeks did "by Gemini." A careful observer will notice that Pollux is somewhat brighter than Castor, so they are not quite twins. Perhaps one star has changed in brightness since ancient times.

CANCER (June 21-July 20) The stargazer's subtle treasure in Cancer is the Beehive, a cluster of stars that appears to the naked eye as a blur of light--under ideal viewing conditions. Urban or suburban viewers will need binoculars to see the bees buzzing in their hive.

LEO (July 21-Aug. 21) Leo is another group of stars that looks like the figure it is supposed to represent, a reclining lion. Since ancient times the constellation has been associated with kingship. Regulus is the brightest star of the constellation; its name means "little king." In this part of the sky, with few bright stars or constellations, Leo is certainly king of the beasts.

VIRGO (Aug. 22-Sept. 22) The sun is in Virgo in autumn. This probably accounts for the association of the constellation with the goddess of the earth or harvest. Egyptians called her Isis, Greeks knew her as Persephone, for Saxons she was Eostre, who gave her name to Easter. On old star maps, the Virgin is often shown with a sheaf of wheat in her hand at the position of the bright star Spica, whose name means "ear of wheat."

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22) Libra, the scales, is the only zodiac constellation that is not a living creature. The Romans created Libra by cutting off the Scorpion's claws and making them the pans of a scale. But they forgot to change the star names. The brightest stars in Libra are Zubenelgenubi, the Southern Claw, and Zubeneschamali, the Northern Claw, which brings us back to...

...SCORPIO, completing a stargazer's circuit of the zodiac. Now wasn't that more fun than all that astrology nonsense?

Further Reading

Anyone with a lingering affection for astrology should read two papers by Ivan Kelly, of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Saskatchewan.

I. M. Kelly, Modern Astrology: A Critique, Psychological Reports, 1997, 81, 1035-1066.

I. M. Kelly, Why Astrology Doesn't Work, Psychological Reports, 1998, 82, 527-546.

Does anyone know if these papers are available on the web?

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.