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Astrology: FACT or FICTION?

If you even glance at your daily horoscope, it’s time to discover the facts about astrology.

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Written by Michael E. Bakich (associate editor of "Astronomy" magazine)

"YOU STUDY ASTROLOGY, DON'T YOU?"

I've gotten used to that question. Many people confuse astronomy — the science that studies celestial objects — and astrology — a belief that those same objects in the cosmos influence individual lives here on Earth. Most people know astronomy deals with facts and figures, but what about astrology? What are its facts? Where did it originate? And, most importantly, does it work?

At night, thousands of stars shine overhead. How can we ever get to know all the stars, tell one from another, or even understand their effect on our lives?

People first tried to answer these questions 6,000 years ago in the "Cradle of Civilization" — Mesopotamia. In southern Babylonia, a tribe known as the Chaldeans looked to the stars for guidance and counted their months by the phases of the Moon. When the crescent Moon appeared in the western evening sky, it signaled the beginning of a new lunar month of 29 or 30 days. In those ancient times, the first crescent Moon of summer was seen among the stars of Leo the Lion. The Chaldeans noticed the Moon appeared farther east each evening, waxing full in a different constellation each month. It passed through Virgo the Virgin, through Libra the Scales, and on through the same constellations year after year. Thousands of years later, the Greeks called the constellations the "circle of animals" or zodiakos kykios — the zodiac.

The lunar calendar, clever as it was, left the Chaldeans with a sticky problem: It gave them only 354 days in a year — about 11 days short. The purpose of their calendar was to predict the coming of seasons. They needed to know when to sow, when to reap, and when they could expect rain. But with an error of 11 days per year, their calendar would be 6 months out-of-sync with the seasons in less than 20 years. Obviously, more research was needed to complete their 365-day calendar, so the Chaldeans turned to the planets for their solution.

They called the planets bibbu, or wild goats, for the way they seemed to prance and run among the slower-moving stars. The planets visible to them — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — like the Moon, traveled through the zodiac. For the Chaldeans, the zodiac took on greater significance.

The Chaldeans made a major discovery while monitoring the night sky from dusk to dawn. As the morning sky brightened, they noted the lowest zodiacal constellation visible in the east. As an example, let's say it was Sagittarius. They reasoned correctly that the Sun must lie in the next constellation — Capricornus. Because the rising constellation changed during the year, the Sun must make the same journey through the zodiac as the Moon and planets.

The Chaldeans chose 12 constellations of special importance in the nighttime sky — one for each Full Moon of the year. And they defined the zodiacal path, along which the Sun, Moon, and planets travel. While searching for a more accurate calendar, they created the foundation of astrology.

Gods and magic

For a thousand years, the Babylonian priesthood collected detailed observations of the heavens, but the true nature of the stars and planets eluded them. Eventually, each planet became identified with a god or goddess. With only slight changes, they would later be adopted into the mythology of the Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks who lived around 300 B.C.E. were the first to formalize the influences of the planets and constellations on human affairs. Most of the influences were drawn from a combination of earlier Babylonian mythology and their own. For example, because Mars was the god of war, the significance of the planet Mars concerns war, blood, and fire. It's usually a bad sign. Because Venus was the goddess of love, the planet's influence pertains to pleasure, children, luck, and wealth, making it a good sign.

The Greeks also applied the theory of magical correspondence to astrology. Because a constellation is called "the Bull," its influence on people is to make them bullish — that is, they are rather stubborn, opinionated, and unintelligent.

Astrology, then, became an odd combination of three separate disciplines: science — the observable motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets; religion — the deities of both Greek and Roman mythology; and magic — the supernatural principle of correspondence between a constellation and its influence on people.

Due to the growing popularity of scientific thought, many modern astrologers refer to their craft as the "science" of astrology. And, as we have seen, it does have a scientific element — its astronomical side. Even if we ignore astrology's religious and magical components, how scientifically valid is it? We can begin by examining the astrological signs.

What's your sign?

The most frequently asked question in astrology must be "What's your sign?" Specifically, this means: "In which sign of the zodiac was the Sun on the date of your birth?" The answer is not as simple as it may appear.

Astrologers divide the zodiac into 12 equal parts called "signs." Each sign represents a space in the zodiac ruled by one of the 12 constellations. According to astrologers, the Sun is "in" each sign for about 30 days.

This system gives us the horoscope table most familiar to the public — the one you find in newspapers or magazines. According to this table, a person born November 10 is born under the sign of Scorpius the Scorpion. But when we look at the night sky November 10, the Sun is not in the constellation Scorpius — it's in Libra the Scales.

Which characteristics then should we expect in this person, those of the Scorpion, or those of the Scales? All the signs of the zodiac have the same problem: Every constellation occupies the space in the zodiac assigned to the previous constellation.

It wasn't always this way. Approximately 2,200 years ago when the birth dates corresponding to each Sun sign were determined — the signs corresponded to the constellations. Since then, however, the constellations have shifted almost 25°.

A peculiar motion of Earth called "precession" is responsible for this shift. Because of gravitational influences from the Sun and Moon, Earth's axis wobbles like that of a slowing top. Earth completes one precessional cycle — or one complete wobble — every 26,000 years.

Since the days of ancient Greece, precession has carried all the zodiacal signs nearly one constellation to the west. The precessional shift will continue, and the error will increase every year until 24,000 years from now, when the signs will match the constellations they are named for once again.

If you ask modern astrologers about precession, they probably will tell you it doesn't matter — it's the signs that are important, not the constellations. But, without the constellations, where do the signs get their magical powers? Without Scorpius the Scorpion, what's scorpion-like about the sign Scorpio? What's bullish about the sign Taurus without the constellation of Taurus the Bull? How can we believe in influences from the stars if even astrologers say the stars are irrelevant? Although astrologers generally ignore the effects of precession, they do not deny its existence. In fact, they've been known to exploit it:

When the Moon is in the 7th house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars.
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
----- The Fifth Dimension (1969)
The Age of Aquarius

The rock musical Hair that opened in 1969 became the first Broadway production knowingly to list astrologers in the credits. Its hit song, "The Age of Aquarius" became one of the few optimistic notes in a decade plagued by war and civil unrest. The song promised a dramatic change from turmoil to peace, love, and prosperity as we left the Age of Pisces and entered the Age of Aquarius.

We are approaching the Age of Aquarius, but not because "the Moon is in the 7th house" or because Jupiter is aligning with Mars — both of which are common occurrences. We're entering the Age of Aquarius because of precession. Astrology recognizes 12 "great ages." Each great age begins when precession moves the Sun, viewed on the first day of spring, into a new sign.

If we imagine Earth's equator, projected into space, it becomes the "celestial equator". The first day of spring (or autumn in the Southern Hemisphere) officially occurs when the Sun, traveling northward along its apparent path (the ecliptic), crosses the celestial equator. That moment is called the "vernal equinox." Two thousand years ago, the vernal equinox was in the sign of Aries the Ram. It was the Age of Aries.

Due to precession, the vernal equinox moves westward through the stars slowly. Today it's in Pisces the Fishes, and this is the Age of Pisces. By now, you've probably guessed the constellation west of Pisces (Aquarius). Because the vernal equinox is moving gradually toward a rendezvous with Aquarius, it can be said we are at the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius." But don't look for worldwide peace and understanding too soon — this momentous event is still nearly 600 years away.

More problems

Even if we ignore the wrench slipped into the astrological works by precession, we still have a number of dilemmas. If we divide the circle of the zodiac (360°) into 12 equal signs as astrologers do, each sign would be 30° wide. Astrologers assign between 29 and 32 days for the time the Sun spends in each sign. This is a major deviation from what we actually see in the sky.

The Sun's apparent path through each zodiacal constellation is hardly 30°. The amount of time the Sun spends in each constellation ranges from 7 days for Scorpius to 45 days for Virgo.

Compare the table of "horoscope" birth dates to the table for each constellation as it appears in the sky. The odds are greater than 7-to-1 that on your birthday, the Sun was not in what you thought was your constellation.

Each year, from December 1 to 17, the Sun is in front of the stars of the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer, which lies in the circle of the zodiac. Ophiuchus is found between Scorpius and Sagittarius. Oddly enough, the Sun spends 17 days a year in Ophiuchus compared to 7 days in Scorpius. But traditional astrology ignores whatever influences Ophiuchus may have on our lives.

The Sun appears in 13 constellations, but the Moon may appear in five additional constellations and the visible planets in six more. That's 24 constellations — if we ignore the motions of Pluto. Pluto has a highly-inclined orbit. It may appear in 17 additional constellations, bringing the total to 41.

Astrologers attribute profound influences to the three outer planets — Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Uranus was discovered in 1781, Neptune in 1846, and Pluto in 1930. The ancients had no telescopes and, therefore, no knowledge of these planets. In fact, in 1610, Italian religious fanatic Sizzi wrote this about the Sun, the Moon, and the five visible planets:

Just as there are seven openings in the head, there are seven objects which move through the heavens. We need no more, therefore, there are no more!

Today's astrology texts describe in detail the effects of the outer planets on humans. But how have modern astrologers determined the exact influences of Neptune and Pluto? From the time of their discovery, neither one has made a complete revolution around the Sun! It seems the more we know about astronomy, the more we question astrology.

Cosmic influences

When preparing horoscopes, astrologers rely on astronomical observations and scientific theory to compute the positions of the planets. Because science is used in the first stage of the process, it's logical to wonder if it is used in computing, or inventing, the astrological influences. After all, the final step for astrologers is to determine the effect of these influences on an individual's life and predict an individual's fortune.

Twenty-two centuries ago, scientific theory was in its infancy. The Greeks believed Earth was at rest in the center of the universe. They had no knowledge of the distances to the planets, no knowledge of their orbits around the Sun, and no theory of gravity to compute their motions accurately. However, they did notice correspondences between heaven and Earth. For example, the seasons on Earth progress through cycles that follow the changing position of sunrise. The Greeks also noted a correspondence between the phases of the Moon and the rise and fall of ocean tides. With such obvious examples as guides, it was easy to believe in the existence of cosmic influences — 2,200 years ago.

Today, we are indebted to the intuition of the ancients. Not only do we believe in cosmic influences, but we've been able to identify, describe, and measure them. Modern science recognizes the force of gravity along with electromagnetic and nuclear forces. In addition, there are various forms of radiation — light, radio, and X rays to name a few. Are any of these the "magical influences" ascribed to the planets and stars?

Consider a baby at the moment of birth, the critical time in the production of a horoscope. Modern scientific theory enables us to compute not only the positions of the planets in the sky, but the intensity of all known forces and radiation absorbed by a child at birth. The results are worth investigating.

The walls of the hospital block most of the radiation from the Sun and stars. Even if they didn't, the lights in the delivery room far outshine any stellar radiation. In addition, the building exerts about 10 times more gravitational pull than all eight planets combined, 500,000 times more than the nearest star beyond the Sun. Thus the forces and radiation from space that fall on us at birth are overwhelmed by counterparts within our own environment.

Constellations

But even if we've been interpreting the influences from the planets and stars incorrectly for the last 22 centuries, couldn't a system of astrology be developed based on scientific principles instead of on magic and myth? Before we devote our lives to this endeavor, let's take a closer look at the constellations.

No one, true way to name the constellations exists. They can be whatever our imaginations come up with. We name constellations to map the skies and jog our memories about earthly occurrences.

Capricornus, for example, was given the form of a mountain goat because, 4,000 years ago, this constellation was climbing high into the sky as the Sun was reaching its greatest height. It was also the start of the rainy season, so the Chaldeans added a fish's tail, and Capricornus became that mythical beast, the Sea-Goat.

When modern humans named the constellations, imagination seemed to wane. Much of the constellation Ursa Major the Great Bear is known more commonly as the Big Dipper. And Sagittarius the Archer is reduced to a common teapot. Under a modern system of astrology, would people born under the sign of the Teapot be short, stout, and frequently blow oft steam?

Another major point to keep in mind about the constellations is this: Just because two stars are in the same constellation doesn't mean they're physically related. It means only that they're in the same direction. We are left, then, with a sky full of stars grouped only by optical illusion, with each apparent group named according to the mythology and imagination of the viewer. Even an updated system of astrology is off to a shaky start.

Astrology's popularity

Never have the principles of science and rational thinking been more clearly understood than today, and yet 84 million Americans believe in astrology. Five reasons contribute to its popularity.

  1. From a psychological standpoint, astrology has a strong appeal. It deals with the self and things of a personal nature, making it an ideal pastime for the "Me Generation."
  2. Astrology provides a way out for those who hate to make decisions. For many people who find astrology useful, it gives proof to the adage that any decision is better than no decision at all.
  3. Those who practice astrology often feel in possession of secret, esoteric knowledge. They manipulate mysterious symbols and terms; they refer to imposing astronomical tables; and they feel in touch with arcane forces unknown to science. As with black magic and the occult, astrology fills a religious need for some followers.
  4. Astrology is available to answer the perplexing questions of everyday life. How else can John know in advance if Mary will make a good wife, if a particular business venture will succeed, or if a certain plot of land should be purchased?
  5. The strongest reason for astrology's persistence is money. Successful astrologers command six-figure incomes. Books on astrology overflow the shelves. Jewelry items celebrate the beauty and mystique of the zodiac. Astrological predictions are guaranteed eye-catchers for tabloids. And what newspaper would dare try to sell a morning edition without the daily horoscope guide? Yes, astrology may be second-rate science, but it's a first-class business — born under the sign of the dollar, with profits rising.
The bottom line

Although it's a fact that a market for astrological paraphernalia and predictions exists, a 2001 Gallup Poll revealed seven out of 10 Americans do not believe in astrology. Of course, neither the marketplace nor opinion polls can resolve the underlying issue: How well does it work? Is astrology fact or fiction?

A comprehensive study in 1979 collected predictions in astrology magazines and horoscope guides during a 5-year period. Out of a total of more than 3,000 predictions noted, only 338 — or about 11 percent — were fulfilled as published. Would you rush out and buy a car if only one out of every 10 cars made actually worked?

Probably not.

So if ever you're tempted to pick up the newspaper and read your horoscope, remember: astrology is — by every scientific and rational test — fiction.

Michael E. Bakich is an associate editor of Astronomy.

Published in "Astronomy" magazine, December 2004

Astrologers’ Liberties

Venture to a professional astrologer, and you’ll find the Sun sign is only one facet of modern astrology. Because the Sun signs limit the astrologer to 12 basic personality types, most astrologers today emphasize the "sidereal horoscope." Here’s how it works:

On your birth date, one of the zodiacal signs rose on the eastern horizon. This sign is your "ascendant." Remember: We are referring to the zodiacal signs established more than 2,000 gears ago.

When reading your horoscope, an astrologer begins with the date, time, and place of your birth, and a chart divided into 12 segments or "houses." The astrologer completes the chart using symbols for each sign of the zodiac.

Outside the first house, the astrologer writes the symbol for the ascendant — let's pick Leo the Lion as an example. The astrologer then adds symbols for the remaining signs in their proper sequence, as they would rise over the horizon.

The Sun, Moon, and planets also have symbols. The Sun on this birthday was in the sign of Sagittarius, which put it in the fifth house. The Moon was in the sign for Pisces, so it was in the eighth house. The symbols for all the planets are entered according to the zodiacal sign they occupied on this birth date.

The astrologer then compares the positions of the planets to one another. An angle of 180° is an "opposition" — a tug-of-war between planets. That's bad, portending disaster. An angle of 120° is a "trine." That's very good. An angle of 90° is a "square." It's bad, but not as bad as an opposition. An angle of 60° is a "sextile." It's also good.

All of these angles are plus or minus 7°. An opposition can be anywhere from 173° to 187°, a trine, between 113° and 127°, and so on. Astrologers give no reason for allowing this margin of error.

If the Sun and Moon are within 10° of each other, or if two planets are no more than 12° apart, that's a "conjunction." It can be either good or bad depending on the planets involved.

Each house is said to control one aspect of your life. Your first house and the planets it contains determine your natural tendencies and appearance. Your second house controls your money and possessions. And so on, from your home and children, to your honor and death.

At this point, you may have several questions for your astrologer. Why is a trine good and a square bad? And why is the moment of birth the most important? Isn't the moment of conception when all the physical traits are passed along to a child?

If you'd like solid answers, you’re out of luck. There aren’t any!

Michael E. Bakich is an associate editor of Astronomy.

Published in "Astronomy" magazine, December 2004

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Last Updated Jun 2007