MYSTICISM VS. REALITY: ASTROLOGY
Until about the invention of the telescope, over four hundred years ago, Astronomy was used basically to understand the movements of celestial objects, that is, to obtain mathematical model of the sky. Later, that mathematical model was used to obtain an “astrological model”. That order denoted the relative importance to which each “study” was given, that is, Astronomy and Mathematics were at the service of astrology, which was considered a practical application.
So much so that, for example, Nicolaus Copernicus, while being a medical student at the University of Padua between 1501 and 1503, had astrology as one of his subjects, since this “knowledge” was considered important for understanding diseases.
Before continuing, it is time to make some technical definitions:
The stars are giant balls of gas burning billions of kilometers away. All the stars are suns. The Sun is a star. If we travel to other stars we will see that they are as big and hot as the Sun, and if we look back from where we left, we would see the Sun as a tiny dot cold and dim.
Stars are classified with letters and/or numbers, according to their physical characteristics and chemical composition, generally in order from hottest to coldest, corresponding to blue, the hottest, white, yellow, red, the coldest, essentially with the letters OBAFGKM (for the anecdote: there is a mnemotechnic: Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me, revealing the age of the classification).
The poet Rabo Serpsé wrote in 2001: “The moon is a place, is a place, a place where men have been, left their awkward footprints and that lonely flag that at first refused to stand.” [...] “I forget that the moon is a place, that it always has been and would have been even if no one ever went there.” (Ref. 1) Mars is a place. Jupiter’s satellite Europa is a place. Saturn’s moon Titan is a place. They have always been places.
Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) wrote: “What a wonderful and amazing Scheme we have here of the magnificent Vastness of the Universe! So many Suns, so many Earths […]! And how must our astonishment and admiration might be increased when we consider the prodigious distances and a multitude of Stars?” (Ref. 2). Since the discovery with advanced techniques of the extrasolar planet 51 Pegasi b by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz in 1995, thousands of planets have been detected revolving around other stars.
The sky as seen from Earth also has its coordinates, as the Earth’s surface. The latitude is called Declination, and it ranges from 0 (zero) degrees to what is directly above the equator to 90 degrees North or +90 to what is directly above the North Pole, or to –90 degrees depending on how much the Declination is towards the South Pole. Longitude is not measured in degrees but rather in a system that follows the Earth’s rotation with respect to the sun: Right Ascension. Right Ascension begins with a zero in the sky and from there on, the moments in which the different celestial objects pass through the meridian after zero are counted, that is, it is measured in hours, minutes and seconds. Right Ascension then goes from zero to 24 hours. In other words, if zero hour begins in a certain celestial object, an object that is 270 degrees will be in a Right Ascension of 18 hours. The name comes from the ascent of the celestial object on the ideal horizon (as seen from the equator) in a right angle; the more time passes since the zero point rises on the horizon, the greater the Right Ascension. For example, a Right Ascension of 16 h 37 min 28 s means that the object rose above the ideal horizon that amount of time after zero. That is then its location. We will use these definitions constantly in this article.
Another notion that we will use is that of equinoxes and solstices. The word equinox can be divided into two parts: equi -, which means equal, and - nox , which means night; that is, day and night are of equal duration. The word solstice can also be divided into sol-, the sun, and - stice , which means stationary; that is, they are the two moments in which the sun reverses its way from being the lowest over the horizon at noon to being the highest over the horizon at noon and vice versa, each time giving an instantaneous “stop” in that movement.
Let’s explain this better: since the Earth has its axis tilted (today we know this) there are times when the northern hemisphere is more illuminated than the southern hemisphere, and half an orbital revolution around the Sun, it is the southern hemisphere that is more illuminated than the north. So we have those two moments, from more illuminated to less illuminated, which correspond approximately to 21 June and 22 December, which are the solstices. In the middle of these dates we have the intermediate moments, in which both hemispheres are equally illuminated, which are the equinoxes, and which correspond approximately to 21 March and 23 September. (The dates vary a day from one year to the next).
The orbit of the Earth around the Sun generates a circle called the ecliptic. The word comes from eclipse, because eclipses occur on that circle. From the surface of the Earth, we can project the ecliptic in the sky forming a line, and we will see that throughout a solar year there are parts of the sky that, as the Earth moves around, successively remain behind the glare of the Sun, disappearing and then re-emerging. In one complete revolution the apparent sun performs a complete 360-degree “sweep” in that band. The line of the ecliptic thus marks the “path of the sun” through sky throughout a year.
Another important concept is the heliacal rising. The word comes from helios, Sun, and it is the first day that a celestial object is observed after being hidden by the Sun, due to the Earth’s translation. A day before the object was hidden in the glare of the Sun. The heliacal rising is its reappearance. This always happens on the same date of the solar year. The heliacal rising of a celestial object occurs just before sunrise, so it is a very fleeting event.
THE USE OF THE SKY ACCORDING TO THE BABYLONIANS
The Babylonians lived in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, thousands of years before our Era (although we use the word Babylonians, they were actually a succession of various empires during much of their history).
They used two ways of tracking time: with full moons and with the position of the stars. Full moons complete 12 lunar months in 1 year, thus giving 354 days. The sidereal year is longer, 365 days. Perhaps by mixing both calendars, they arrived at a 360-day system for the year (Ref. 3 ). (When over the years the difference of days with 365 added up too much, a month was repeated [Ref. 4]).
The number 360 is very interesting, as it can be divided by a large number of divisors: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 30, 40, 45, 60, 90, 120, 180. Although 12 is a much smaller number, it can also be divided by several divisors: 2, 3, 4, 6. So the Babylonians used both numbers very frequently, for example for the spokes of the wheels of their charriots (Ref. 3). They also invented the sexagesimal system of 360 degrees, 60 minutes for angular measurements and 60 minutes, 60 seconds as a subdivision of hourly measurements (Ref. 5).
The MUL.APIN (technical name) tables are Babylonian astronomical records present on clay tablets. The oldest preserved to date are from 687 B.C.E., but the earliest were probably from 1000 B.C.E., and are perhaps derived from even older records (Ref. 6; Ref. 7). What is remarkable is that they are textbooks of the astronomical knowledge accumulated up to that point.
Babylonian Astronomy apparently begins with one star: Aldebaran (Ref. 7). Aldebaran’s heliacal rising coincided with the spring equinox, the beginning of the solar year, around 3000 B.C.E.. Aldebaran is a red giant of type K5+III, 65 light-years from the Solar System, of apparent magnitude +0,8, being one of the 15 brightest stars in the night sky. (The higher the number, the lower the brightness. The fainter to the naked eye are magnitude +6. Thus, it is said that Aldebaran is a star of first magnitude). It has a companion star of apparent magnitude +13 and even a planet, Aldebaran b. Aldebaran was long thought to be part of the Hyades open cluster, but these stars are now known to be behind and much further away, 150 light-years from the Solar System. Due to its brightness and its color, Aldebaran was surely quite remarkable to ancient observers.
Just as Aldebaran’s heliacal rising marked the transition from winter to summer season, there is another reddish star almost exactly on the opposite side of the sky that had its heliacal rising on the northern autumn equinox. This star is Antares, a red supergiant of type M1.5lab-lb and apparent brightness +1, at 600 light-years from the Solar System, with a blue companion of a brightness of fifth magnitude, gravitationally bound. Antares is one of the largest known stars, with a diameter such that if we put it in place of the Sun, its surface would reach somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. The heliacal rising of Antares marked the passage from summer to winter, the opposite of Aldebaran.
The sun rises at dawn in the eastern region and sets in the western region, but not exactly on those cardinal points. Except on the equinoxes. On those days, the sun rises exactly due East and sets exactly due West. Thus, with the heliacal risings of Aldebaran and Antares, there was a very precise marking of the East and West cardinal points.
Let’s now see what happens with the solstices. On those days, the sun rises farthest north on the eastern horizon and sets farthest north on the western horizon, and similarly in its movement to the south. At those points the sun, at noon, is as high and as low as possible in the solar year, marking the middle of summer and the middle of winter. By managing these data on the position of the Sun the North cardinal point and the South cardinal point can be obtained, but its brightness and the difficulty of estimating the moment of the “stationary sun” makes monitoring the other stars much easier (Ref. 4).
In the mid-boreal summer dates the heliacal rising of a star now known as Regulus occurred. It is actually a quadruple system of gravitationally bound stars, 79 light-years from the Solar System, of apparent magnitude +1,4 of brightness. On the day that Regulus had its heliacal rising, it was known that at noon it was (together with the Sun) virtually pointing to the North cardinal point (although the shadow of a rod was necessary to observe this from the latitude of Babylon, outside the tropical region).
Just as the heliacal rising of Regulus marked the middle of summer, the heliacal rising of the star Fomalhaut marked the middle of winter, although it was very low on the horizon as seen from Babylon (Ref. 7). However, it is very bright, of magnitude +1,16, so it could be useful. It is a star that is 25 light-years from the Solar System, and with the star TW Piscis Austrini and the brown dwarf star LP 876-10 it constitutes a gravitationally linked triple system. It has a detected planet, Fomalhaut b. Back in the time of 3000 B.C.E., at noon on the day of its heliacal rising it pointed, together with the Sun, approximately to the South cardinal point, and as we said, at that time it was approximately the middle of the boreal winter.
Over time, the Babylonians, as well as different cultures around the world, began to point to those stars together with the surrounding stars. It didn’t take long for them to start “connecting the dots” to form familiar shapes, a psychological trick known as pareidolia. (Pareidolia is responsible for some people seeing statues in the clouds, a bunny in the great dark plains of the Moon or the face of Jesus on an old ironing board). Each culture had its own drawings, but the Babylonians saw a bull, a scorpion, a lion and a fish in a torrent of water where Aldebaran, Antares, Regulus and Fomalhaut were, respectively (Ref. 7). Each “connecting the dots” results in what is called an asterism, and over time the entire region of the sky surrounding the asterism and everything within that region was called a constellation.
Over time, they began to search for other bright stars whose heliacal risings corresponded to the 12 months of the year. This is how they began to fill the band of the sky on which the Sun travels, in an apparent way, throughout a solar year, with asterisms and constellations. Those 12 monthly constellations thus became a gigantic calendar in the sky.
These and other asterisms that they were inventing were very important to the Babylonians because their heliacal risings marked important dates in the agricultural solar calendar: when to sow, when to harvest, etc..
Other cultures, such as the cultures of the navigators of the Mediterranean Sea, began to fill the entire celestial vault with their own pareidolias, apparently as an aid to navigation. Thus, dozens of asterisms of all kinds and their corresponding constellations arose (Ref. 8).
Some ancient constellations survived until our days, some did not. Many were transmuted, dismembered, amalgamated or simply replaced, according to how they were being assimilated by one culture that received them from another over time. Others are of recent creation, for example, as a result of explorations in the Southern Hemisphere.
To the practical purpose of the constellations, however, was later joined a superstitious purpose: there came a time when they became sacred. Various cultures did the same with their asterisms, but others did not, notably the Jewish culture, from which Christianity derives. For example, even though it also originated from Mesopotamia, the Jewish culture was monotheistic, different from Babylon, which was polytheistic. So we have examples in Scripture, as in its ancient and millenary Genesis, which already says in its first chapter: “[verse 14] God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them be signs to indicate seasons and days and years,  and let them serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.’ It was so.  God made two great lights — the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night. He made the stars also.  God placed the lights in the expanse of the sky to shine on the earth,  to preside over the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw that it was good.  There was evening, and there was morning, a fourth day. (Ref. 9). Or the book of Deuteronomy: “When you look up to the sky and see the sun, moon, and stars — the whole heavenly creation — you must not be seduced to worship and serve them, for the Lord your God has assigned them to all the people of the world.” (Ref. 10). Also the book of Job: “He makes the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, and the constellations of the southern sky;” (Ref. 11), and elsewhere:  “Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades or release the cords of Orion?  Can you lead out the constellations in their seasons or guide the Bear with its cubs?” (Ref. 12). And the clarifications follow, for example in Psalms: “When I look up at the heavens, which your fingers made, and see the moon and the stars, which you set in place.” (Ref. 13). And in the book of Amos: “But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion; he can turn the darkness into morning and daylight into night. He summons the water of the seas and pours it out on the earth’s surface. The Lord is his name!” (Ref. 14). The message is clear: there is only one creator, and the created objects are just that: objects.
A note about the Pleiades and Orion: the Pleiades, or M45, is an open cluster (of common origin and gravitationally linked) of more than 1000 stars, located about 440 light-years from us, of which only 6 or 7 are visible to the naked eye. In Brazil it is called the seven chicks and in Spain the seven little goats, the name by which it appears in Don Quixote (Ref. 15). To the Greeks they were 7 sisters, and William Bouguereau painted in 1884 a beautiful composition showing six women together in the distance trying to reach a seventh in the foreground, aptly titled “The Lost Star”, due to the difficulty of seeing the seventh with the naked eye. In Japanese, the stellar cluster is known ancestrally as Mutsuraboshi, “6 stars”, and it is also called by the modern name of Subaru, “to get together”, which is the name adopted by the car manufacturer, product of the fusion of 6 companies and whose logo evokes the 6 stars in the sky together (Ref. 16).
Orion was a hunter for the Greeks, whose belt (from which the corresponding sword hangs) in said asterism are three bright stars of second magnitude located on the celestial equator, very visible, equidistantly aligned. To the Arabs the stars are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, the string of pearls. Alnitak is a triple star with coordinates 5 h 40 min 45 s of Right Ascension and -1 deg 56 min 34 s of Declination, about 1200 light-years distant. Alnilam is a blue supergiant ball with coordinates 5 h 36 min 13 s of Right Ascension and -1 deg 12 min 7 s of Declination, at a distance of about 2000 light-years. Mintaka is a five-fold gravitational star system with coordinates 5 h 31 min 59 s of Right Ascension and -0 (minus zero) deg 17 min 57 s of Declination, 1200 light-years distant.
A glance at Right Ascensions shows us that the apparent spacing in terms of hourly angles is just over 4 minutes, and looking at the Declination we notice that they are successively distant about 1 sexagesimal degree of angular distance from each other, towards the South from the celestial equator. As we also pick out from the data, only Alnitak and Mintaka are at the same absolute distance from the Solar System, 1200 light-years, with Alnilam nearly twice as far, 2000 light-years from us, so the belt is only apparent. This difference in absolute distances in the same asterism occurs in all constellations, because as it could be demonstrated only with the advanced instruments of 1838 by Friedrich Bessel, the space between the stars is not two-dimensional, as previously thought generally, but three-dimensional.
In parentheses, another similar case is that of the 2 brightest stars of the 37 that according to Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100 C.E. - c. 170 C.E.) there are in the asterism of the centaur Chiron, called Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri (to the Arabs, respectively, Rigil Kentaurus, the foot of the Centaur, and Hadar, a proper name of uncertain meaning). Alpha is a system of two stars the size of the Sun plus a red dwarf orbiting them, Proxima Centauri, which has a detected planet, Proxima Centauri b. Beta is a stellar system of two blue supergiants of type B1III plus a bluish dwarf of type B1V, linked gravitationally. Let’s compare the distances: Alpha is 4,3 light-years away (the closest to Earth after the Sun), and Beta 100 times farther, 400 light-years away.
Let’s analyze another asterism at random. How about the Southern Cross: none of its stars is at the same distance as another, ranging from 88 light-years for Gama, 228 light years for Epsilon, 280 light-years for Beta, 325 light-years for Alpha, up to 364 light-years for Delta. Compare the absolute distance order with the alphabetical order of brightness as seen from Earth: instead of being A-B-C-D-E it is actually C-E-B-A-D, without any pattern. This randomness of stars nearby but dim and distant but bright is repeated all over the sky.
Furthermore, stars in well-separated constellations may be closer to each other than to other stars within their own constellation. Let’s verify this by listing in order the 12 stars closest to the Solar System and the constellations to which they belong: Alpha Centauri, constellation of the Centaurus; Barnard’s star, Ophiuchus constellation; Luhman 16, constellation of Vela; Wolf 359, constellation Leo; Lalande 21185, constellation Ursa Major; Sirius, constellation Canis Major; Luyten 726-8, constellation Cetus; Ross 154, constellation Sagittarius; Ross 248, Andromeda constellation; Epsilon Eridani, constellation Eridanus; Lacaille 9352, constellation Piscis Austrinus; and Ross 128, constellation Virgo. But to the present knowledge, no one has ever formed a constellation with these 12 closest stars. Maybe it’s because the 12 stars are in 12 different constellations scattered throughout the sky, and 9 of them off astrological names.
Back to the 3 stars of the belt of the hunter according to the Greeks, or what is the same, the 3 stars of the string of pearls according to the Arabs. To South American Christians these 3 Muslim stars are the Three Jewish Marys who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Nazareth and “the other Mary” (this last one, Mary the wife of Cleophas, or the mother of the sons of Zebedee, or Salome, according to the different Gospels).
As we saw in the case of the Pleiades and in this one of Orion, mythologies vary completely from one culture to another.
It is thus that the constellations are pure fantasy, psychological tricks, pareidolia as explained.
Now let’s look at something else in the sky: even though the Semites believe that there is only one god, as we saw, by the time of Cyrus the Great (c. 590 B.C.E.- c. 529 B.C.E.), and certainly long before, the Babylonians began to worship other lights in the sky that had nothing to do with the seasons or the cardinal points: the planets. Planet, a word that means wanderer (i.e. that goes from one part to another without having a fixed seat), was so called because it travels from one constellation to another, and does not form any asterism. The ancients knew 5: Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Mercury, which are the ones that can be identified with the naked eye. They were all “gods.”
The most important was Jupiter, known to the Babylonians as Marduk. He was also called Bel (“Lord”), and there are accounts of a discussion between the Jew Daniel and King Cyrus the Great about his divinity. Marduk, or Bel, had a temple centered on an idol which was fed every night with abundant food. Daniel said that it was nothing more than a clay statue lined with bronze and the priests made it alive and gluttonous with a trick. King Cyrus asked how this could be. Daniel then told them to place ashes on the floor of the temple, just before closing it at the end of the day. That night the priests laid out food as usual, and locked the doors of the temple until morning, as usual. Upon opening them, human footprints were found leading to a secret door within the temple. The lie was clear: the priests, using the secret door, stole the food every night and told the king that Bel, or Marduk, was alive. The truth was different: the cult of Bel, Marduk or its modern name, Jupiter, was a vain worship to a simple object without magic or any spirituality (Ref. 17). This truth holds, of course, to this day.
One thing we should note is that even though these polytheistic religions were very old, not necessarily used the sky for direct divination, through “rays” or “energies” or whatever, but rather they saw the sky as a board where the gods (or even the simple future to come) communicated by indirect signals. It was common among the official priests of the royal courts to create conditional omens, of the type “if such a thing happens in the sky then this will happen”, as the millenary tradition of the Enuma Anu Enlil series that reached about 7000 omens. All this astrological practice was centered on the fate of the State. In parallel, other practices existed such as the “reading” of the liver of slaughtered animals, of oil stains and of smoke columns (Ref. 18).
The oldest horoscopes are very recent, from almost the Hellenistic era. The earliest known personal horoscope is in the Babylonian cuneiform tablet AB 251, kept in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, and is dated 29 April 410 B.C.E., when they definitely succumbed to astrological mysticism (Ref. 19; Ref. 20). To such an extent that by that time they already included the Sun and the Moon among the planets.
THE SKY TO THE GREEKS
In 432 B.C.E. the Greek astronomer Euctemon, from Athens, by observing shadows and making calculations, decided to fix the beginning of the year not in terms of the night stars but of the Sun. Thus, the year began at the spring equinox, that is, the position of the apparent sun that rises in the East cardinal point, the day when night and day have virtually the same duration, regardless of the position of the other stars (Ref. 21). This had important consequences.
The Babylonians had divided the constellations of the year into 12 of equal size, assigning to each 30 degrees, corresponding to 30 days, completing 360 days in the year and at the same time 360 degrees of the circumference (Ref. 4). Each significant star was in the middle of each square, for example, Aldebaran was 15 degrees from the beginning of the constellation of the bull, that is, the bull began 15 days before the heliacal rising of Aldebaran and ended 15 days later.
Possibly due to the fact that many constellations do not have very bright stars, Euctemon made another modification: placing the beginning of the year at the heliacal rising of the first star that is in the corresponding constellation of the sequence. Thus, the constellation began at the first heliacal rising of any of its stars, whichever appears first, and ended a month later (Ref. 21). From there all the other constellations ran. As this band where the sun “runs” has predominantly animal asterisms, it is called the band of the zodiac, from zoo-, that is, animal.
Let us take into account, however, a very important information: in the zodiac the Babylonians had more than 12 constellations, between 17 and 18 (Ref. 6; Ref. 7; Ref. 20). But 12 is a more comfortable number for making mathematical calendar calculations (for example, 12 months in a year of 360 days, etc.), therefore they ignored the other constellations, and that custom was maintained by the astronomers who came later, until very recent times (Ref. 22; Ref. 23). The Babylonian zodiac as such was finalized between 409 B.C.E. and 398 B.C.E. (Ref. 24).
Now let’s see the following: the Earth has several movements. The best known of rotation and translation are joined by precession, nutation and the change of the obliquity of the ecliptic.
The rotation is the turning on its same axis and lasts 24 hours 00 minutes 00 seconds if we observe it from one noon to the next noon, but 23 hours 56 minutes 4 seconds if we observe it looking at the other stars: what happens is that its translation that occurs simultaneously during that period of time affects the way we see the Sun, hence the difference.
The translation is the revolution around the Sun and lasts 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes 45 seconds from a spring equinox to the next spring equinox, but 365 days 6 hours 9 minutes 10 seconds if we look at it in relation to the other stars.
Nutation are small nods that the Earth’s axis makes, of about 9 seconds of arc, and has a periodicity of 18 years 7 months.
The change in obliquity of the ecliptic are larger movements, changing the inclination of the axis from 22 degrees to 24 degrees and vice versa, but in a much longer period of 41 040 years.
Precession is the change, in the form of a great turning, of the orientation of the Earth’s axis relative to the pole of the ecliptic, that is, about a perpendicular to the plane of the orbit of the Earth. Let’s see how: the Earth’s axis is tilted about 23 degrees 26 minutes with respect to the plane of its orbit, and precession is often compared to the dance of the axis of a rotating top, thus pointing the axis in different directions. The period is 25 772 years to make one complete revolving and return the axis to point in the same direction in space as it was before.
The movement is big: in our time the Earth’s axis points to Polaris, a yellow supergiant of type F7Ib, with a dwarf of type F6V orbiting it, and both being orbited in turn by a third star of type F3V, the entire system 430 light-years away in the constellation of the little bear. But 5000 years ago, in the time of the Babylonians, the Earth’s axis pointed to the star Thuban, a white giant of type A0III, with a companion at a distance comparable to that of the Sun to Mercury, together forming a binary system at 300 light-years in the constellation of the dragon. Due to precession, Polaris is currently at +89 deg 15 min 51 s of Declination, while Thuban has already moved away to +64 deg 22 min 33 s of Declination, a considerable difference of 25 degrees.
This precession movement is what makes the solar year to be different from the sidereal year, that is, the solar calendar varies in relation to the position of the other stars. Let us understand this better: as the axis points in different directions in that period of 25 772 years, but that does not influence whether there are still seasons and therefore equinoxes, the seasons, bathed by the Sun, advance in relation to the position of the other stars. As a practical consequence there are two years, the solar and the sidereal, whose values we gave, and that difference causes the heliacal rising of the other stars to slowly change their dates. That is, the heliacal rising of a star falls behind in time on average 1 day every 70 years 7 months.
In the year 3000 B.C.E. Aldebaran was in zero hours of Right Ascension, as it was the beginning of the year. But that difference between solar year and sidereal year led it to be in Hellenistic times at around 2 hours and 20 minutes of Right Ascension, that is, Aldebaran was rising for the Greeks about two and a half hours later than for the Babylonians before them, on the same day of the year. In Hellenistic Greek times, on the day of the spring equinox, the heliacal rising no longer corresponded to the constellation of the bull, but to that of the ram. The sky was moving.
The Greek astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 408 B.C.E. - c. 355 B.C.E.) observed this and then made one more modification: moving the beginning of the solar year to the actual constellation for his time, that of the ram (Ref. 21).
The discovery for the reason by which the “sky was moving” (actually the third major movement of the Earth, as defined for the first time by Copernicus) is attributed to the great Hipparchus of Nicaea, a lover of truth, as stated about him by Claudius Ptolemy. He made it by carefully comparing positions of stars recorded by astronomers Timocharis and its probable student Aristyllus, from Alexandria, approximately between 298 B.C.E. and 259 B.C.E. with positions that he, Hipparchus, observed in his own time (Ref. 25; Ref. 26).
(For the anecdote: to calculate the coordinates for his time of the stars at night he used the Sun-Earth-Moon line, which formed in the lunar eclipses of the 21th of April of the year 146 B.C.E. and 21th of March of the year 135 B.C.E.. On those nights, he measured the position of the stars relative to the eclipsed Moon, and added 180 degrees to know their angular distances to the Sun, and from there to the point of the equinox. Hipparchus studied equinoxes with observations in the fall of the years 162 B.C.E., 159 B.C.E., 158 B.C.E., 147 B.C.E., 146 B.C.E. and 143 B.C.E., and in the spring of the years 146 B.C.E., 145 B.C.E., 144 B.C.E., 143 B.C.E., 142 B.C.E., 141 B.C.E., 135 B.C.E., 134 B.C.E., 133 B.C.E., 132 B.C.E., 131 B.C.E., 130 B.C.E., 129 B.C.E. and 128 B.C.E., using for this the shadow of a bronze ring located in the “Stoa Square” of Alexandria, and also on the island of Rhodes).
He saw that between the positions of the stars recorded by those earlier astronomers and those observed by him was a systematic difference of 2 degrees, always in the same direction, which in the year 128 B.C.E. he deduced not as errors in the catalog but attributable to a movement hitherto unknown. To this third movement Hipparchus described as a slow circular movement of the pole of the entire celestial vault around the pole of the ecliptic (Ref. 25).
At that time it had not yet been discovered that the Earth has an axis of rotation, until Léon Foucault’s proof in 1851, but the comparison is valid.
Let’s play a little with the definition by Hipparchus. Let us reason like the Greeks. Everything started from the belief that the Earth was absolutely immobile. As they believed that the Earth did not rotate, the rotation was thought to be that of the sky, and that the rotation axis was in it, marking a celestial pole. As they believed that the Earth had no displacement, they thought that the translation was of the Sun; but wait, the ecliptic, “the path of the sun” throughout the year, is inclined with respect to the equator, and therefore there should be a second rotating axis, marking another pole: that of the ecliptic. And as they believed that the Earth did not wobble, they thought that the slow wobble should be of the entire sky, making, as Hipparchus said, that the first pole go around the second. This last apparent movement is what makes the equinoxes advance in the zodiac; from which observation comes the expression “precession of the equinoxes”.
Of course, today we understand that the real mechanics of all this is different from the belief of 2000 years ago, but as a first approximation the effect is analogous.
Hipparchus of Nicaea was the first human being to calculate two different values for the year on Earth. With the precession value of about 2 degrees between the time of Timocharis and Aristyllus and his own, he estimated that the sidereal year lagged behind the solar year by at least one hundredth of a degree per year. For the solar year he had available the observations of the summer solstices by at least three previous astronomers, in 432 B.C.E., 330 B.C.E. and 280 B.C.E..
(More anecdotes: they were Euctemon and Meton of Athens, at the beginning of the First Metonic Cycle, of 19 years each, on 28 June 432 B.C.E. at noon, recorded as 27 at dawn by Claudius Ptolemy or 27 at dusk according to the civil calendar of Athens; Callippus of Cyzicus, at the beginning of the First Callippic Cycle, of 76 years each, on 28 June 330 B.C.E. at dawn; Aristarchus of Samos, 2 Callippic Cycles counting from the beginning of the First Metonic Cycle, on 27 June 280 B.C.E. at dawn, registered as 26 noon, at the official end of the fifth year of the Dionysian calendar, in the fifth year of the regime of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt; one or multiple dates by Archimedes of Syracuse [c. 287 B.C.E. - 212 B.C.E.]; and his recording of his own observation of the boreal summer solstice occurred on 26 June 135 B.C.E. at dawn [Ref 25; Ref. 27]).
By counting the days and quarter of days elapsed and dividing by the number of years, the solar year was calculated as being 365 days 5 hours 55 minutes long, just 6 minutes more than the actual value (Ref. 25). With this data the minimum value for the sidereal year would therefore be 365 days 6 hours 10 minutes, which is 1 minute more than the actual value.
Hipparchus probably also observed, calculated and matched the start of the solar year for his time with some point within the constellation of the ram (close to Gama Arietis, Mesarthim to the Arabs, magnitude +4, which today we know is a binary star, one of type B9V and the other A1p Si, 160 light-years from the Solar System), a point that he established as the first point of the ram (Ref. 21; Ref. 28). But at the same time he did not use the heliacal rising of stars to count the years, but left the first point drag over time through the celestial vault, according to he movements of the solar equinoxes. That is, he insisted on the distinction between sidereal year and solar year, opting for the latter (Ref. 21; Ref. 25; Ref. 28). Which did not solve the problem for astrology.
Near the year 150 C.E. the Hellenistic Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy finished the most influential book on Astronomy until after the Middle Ages: the “Syntax Mathematica”, which would go down in History as the Almagest, meaning “The Majestic”. This work, in 13 volumes, expressed the mechanical system that tried to explain the movements of the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the night stars, placing the Earth as the center and all of Creation revolving around it, something that was not disputed until Copernicus in 1543. It included a catalog, based on Hipparchus, of 1022 stars. He also described and cited the names of 48 constellations visible from the known World (Ref. 29). However, he missed the opportunity to update the beginning of the year, which was no longer in the ram but had already passed to the two fishes.
THE 88 CONSTELLATIONS
Something that Claudius Ptolemy did not include in the Almagest were the borders of the constellations. In fact, no one had done it by that time, beyond the 12 divisions of the zodiac. By 1930 all the constellations in the Southern Hemisphere had been invented (such as the constellation of the Sextant, the Microscope, the Telescope, the Pneumatic Machine) and some constellations in the Northern Hemisphere had been dismembered. The International Astronomical Union therefore reached an agreement on the divisions, which were basically made with simple straight lines following meridians of Right Ascension and parallels of Declination, bordering generally the traditional asterisms (Ref. 30; Ref. 31; Ref. 32). Thus the 88 existing constellations were made official.
Finally, the North-South, East-West extensions and the areas of the constellations and their different parts could be measured with precision. Let’s examine those of the zodiac. The band of the zodiac extends 9 degrees above and 9 degrees below the ecliptic (the apparent “path of the sun”), a total of 18 degrees, to include the movement of all 5 planets visible to the ancients.
The boreal spring equinox is now, after 5000 years, 4 hours 35 minutes 55 seconds of Right Ascension from Aldebaran, occurring ahead of it. Zero hours of Right Ascension is now in the two fishes (Ref. 33: Ref. 34; Ref. 35; Ref. 36; Ref. 37; Ref. 38), and has been inside of this constellation from 68 B.C.E., and will be there until the year 2597, when it will cross the border line with Aquarius (the origin of the torrent of water that the fish drinks; incidentally, the latter in turn now separated as Piscis Austrinus) (Ref. 38).
Therefore, the constellations of the zodiac with their dates and the time in which the sun “spends” in them is (Ref. 32; Ref. 35; Ref. 39): Pisces, from 12 March to 18 April; the sun takes 38 days to travel through it. Aries, from 19 April to 13 May; the sun takes 25 days to traverse it. Taurus: from 14 May to 19 June; the sun takes 37 days to traverse it. Gemini: 20 June to 20 July; the sun takes 31 days to traverse it. Cancer: from 21 July to 9 August; the sun takes 20 days to traverse it. Leo: from 10 August to 15 September; the sun takes 37 days to cross it. Virgo: from 16 September to 30 October; the sun takes 45 days to cross it (the widest). Libra: from 31 October to 22 November; the sun takes 23 days to traverse it. Scorpio: from 23 November to 29 November; the sun takes 7 days to cross it (the narrowest). Ophiuchus, a constellation that was left aside because 360 degrees is not divisible by 13, among other reasons: 30 November to 17 December; the sun spends 18 days in it. Sagittarius: from 18 December to 18 January; the apparent sun crosses it in 32 days. Capricorn: from 19 January to 15 February; the apparent sun crosses it in 28 days. And Aquarius: from 16 February to 11 March; the apparent sun crosses it in 24 days. (The dates oscillate 1 day up or down from one year to another).
If we count from the boundary line between the constellations Pisces (the two fishes) and Aries (the ram), we see that the boreal spring equinox actually falls 29 days earlier (Ref. 39; Ref. 40), well inside Pisces (Ref. 38). In coordinates, a Right Ascension difference of 1 hour 47 minutes (Ref. 32). That is, the heliacal rising of Aries occurs almost two hours later than the rise of the equinoctial sun in the East, and the constellation of Aries is out of synchrony with it almost a third of the way from the horizon to the top.
The star Gama Arietis was replaced by the star Omega Piscium (apparent magnitude +4, type F4IV, at 104 light-years of the Solar System) as the named star closest to the first point of the astronomical year, the place whose mobile coordinates are always kept at zero hours of Right Ascension and zero degrees of Declination.
And if we still have the flattering hope of seeing the return of the first day of the astronomical year dawning in Taurus (the bull), the synchrony shift due to the precession of Earth’s axis is now in (after rounded calculations) 54 days (Ref 39; Ref. 40). In coordinates a synchrony shift in Right Ascension of 3 hours 23 minutes (Ref. 32), well over half of the way from the horizon to the top. The last time a Babylonian could see an equinox with the sun in the constellation of the bull was in 1866 B.C.E. (Ref. 38).
And so with each and every other constellation of the zodiac. Obviously, the sky of 2000 C.E. of us is not the sky of the year 300 B.C.E. of the Greeks, much less the sky of 3000 B.C.E. of the Babylonians.
As for the constellation Ophiuchus, the mythical hero who grasps a huge serpent, so large that its tail and head form two other separate constellations, always existed. Claudius Ptolemy already listed it in the Almagest of 150 C.E.. Aratus of Soli (fl. c. 315 B.C.E. - c. 245 B.C.E.) composed a remarkable poem in verses of hexametric rule in which he described its appearance, along with the huge snake it is grasping with both hands at waist level, with its two feet on the scorpion and its head next to the asterism of the one On His Knees (“Engonasin”, later Hercules), with the serpent’s jaw approaching the boreal crown, all this perfectly framing its real position (Ref. 41).
The inspiration for the poem seems to be an astronomical catalog of Eudoxus of Cnidus from approximately 368 B.C.E. (although, basically by the way the solstices and equinoxes were placed, there is controversy over whether this originated a millennium earlier [Ref. 8; Ref. 42; Ref. 43; Ref. 44]).
The Babylonians also had a constellation in that part of the zodiac, but its name is uncertain, perhaps Nira, the serpent conquered by the gods whose body is confused with the Milky Way (Ref. 7), as does the constellation of the rear half of the modern snake (Ref. 45) .
The supernova (exploding star) SN 1604 appeared on the right ankle of Ophiuchus and was studied in meticulous detail by Johannes Kepler, who published in 1606 the results of his research in a book containing a map with the feet of the character crossing the ecliptic (Ref. 46). SN 1604 was visible for 1 year and reached magnitude -2.5, making it visible during daylight. Due to the measurements made, it was found to be beyond the Moon, discovery which served as point of controversy for Galileo Galilei, stating that the “sphere of fixed stars” is not immutable, as Aristotle said.
On the other hand, the so-called Barnard’s Star, a red dwarf at a distance of 5,95 light-years that is the second closest star to the Solar System after Alpha Centauri, is in Ophiuchus. Of apparent magnitude +9,5, it has the largest proper motion of all known stars: it moves across the sky at 17 arc minutes per century, half the apparent diameter of the Moon. All stars have their own proper motion, that is, independent of the other stars, and this can be in any direction. This phenomenon was discovered in 1718 by Edmond Halley (yes, the one of the comet). The proper motion of each star is no small detail, that should not be forgotten when engaging in the asterisms, as these change their shape very slowly with the passing of the ages. For example, in mere 10 400 years, Barnard’s Star will have shifted an enormous angular distance of 30 degrees, the width of an entire astrological sign, to the northwest. The star 61 Cygni (binary of types K5V and K7V, 11,4 light-years from the Solar System, magnitude +5,2), this one indeed visible to the naked eye, will have moved from its current place 15 degrees to the east-northeast. Aldebaran is slower, almost 3 degrees in that span of time, but that means that it has already changed places in its constellation almost a degree and a half since the time of the Babylonians, towards the east-southeast.
After the case of Ophiuchus, we have the case of the whale. Every 27 March a part of the solar disk penetrates this constellation, and each year it penetrates more and more at a rate of 0,2 arc seconds per year, until at a certain moment the line of the ecliptic will cross it and then the entire sun will be inserted into it, thus being the 14th constellation on its way (Ref. 47).
If we count the planets, and considering the zodiac band as 18-degrees wide, there are 25 constellations that are visited: the one that pours the water, the ram, the crab, the goat, the whale, the raven, the cup, the twins, the female water snake, the lion, the balance, the one who grasps the serpent, the hunter, the winged horse, the two fishes, the archer, the scorpion, the shield, the sextant, the bull, the virgin, the little dog, the coachman, the snake and the eagle (Ref. 39; Ref. 47; Ref. 48). If we include Pluto, which “was” a planet between 1930 and 2006, we also have the shepherd, the hair of Queen Berenice II, the river, and the little lion, for a total of 29 zodiacal constellations (Ref. 39).
THE NEW PLANETS
From Prehistory to the Renaissance, human beings managed to count 5 of those lights that roam through the sky along apparently uncertain paths: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The Sun and Moon were also often included, although at prima facie their paths were less complicated. Earth was Earth, the immovable center of the Universe, and by definition it was not a planet.
The Babylonians called them by other names, such as Ishtar for Venus and Marduk for Jupiter. The Greeks, whose mythology and Astronomy were a syncretism of Babylonian traditions and Mediterranean seafaring peoples, called them Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Zeus, and Cronus. The Moon was Selene and the Sun, Helios. Later, the Romans, who had acquired a strong cultural influence from the Greeks, used much of the same myths but with different names, (those who reached modernity).
There is a notable example of this type of syncretism in the Temple of Dendera, Egypt, where a bas-relief was engraved on the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Osiris, around 36 B.C.E., in the period of the Hellenistic rule and Roman protectorate, the only complete map of a sky from before our Common Era (B.C.E.). It shows the classic zodiac but surrounded by Egyptian constellations for the rest of the sky. The zodiacal constellations, however, do not appear in the forms of the Greco-Roman figures, but as Babylonian figures (Ref. 7; Ref. 8).
And an unthinkable union between the pagan religion and the Christian religion occurred when, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul addressed the Athenians in the council of Areopagus and equated Zeus with Yahweh, using the introduction of the aforementioned poem by the pagan Aratus of Soli and repeating his fifth verse: “For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Ref. 41; Ref. 49).
On 7 March 321, the emperor Constantine the Great ratified de facto that the Roman week of 8 days would have 7, and that they bear the names of the planets, considered gods, with the the rest day being Dies Solis. Those are the current names, derived from the Roman pagan names (except for Wednesday): Monday (Moon), Tuesday (Mars), Thursday (Jupiter), Friday (Venus), Saturday (Saturn) in their Teutonic, Norse and Old English language versions. In Romance languages the word for Saturday derives from “Sabbath” and for Sunday from “Dominicus” (of the Lord) and are Judeo-Christian, but the rest of the week has the same etymology.
(Although not all Latin countries continue to use the astrological nomenclature: Brazilian days are just Domingo, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Sábado).
Note that the order does not correspond to the order of the planets as we know them today. What happens is that until after the Middle Ages there was a lot of confusion as to which was closer and which was further away, especially in the case of Mercury and Venus.
Let’s stop for a moment and note why, up to this point in this article, we have said the names of dozens of beings placed in the sky. There is a story for each celestial object, and each celestial object has its history (or ten, or a hundred, depending on how many cultures we ask). This is by definition what is called Mythology. The word comes from myth: a story, usually traditional, of events apparently historical, which is used to develop part of the vision of the world of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.
In the world of the ancients, the human knowledge of the world around them was of course much more limited than now, and worse, there was no consensual method of seeking reality. Today we have it: the Scientific Method, which tests ideas to see if they work, and if they don’t work, discards them.
Without the predictability of phenomena that modern scientific knowledge teaches us, the ancient world was very, very mysterious. There must have been beings pulling the strings for each thing to work, mysterious beings acting in mysterious ways. They called them gods.
The gods had a will of their own, hidden to us. And the human being is afraid of the unknown. People had to appease them and earn their favor in order to cope with life. There was a god for every human concern. Thus, they created all kinds of cults, and generally hid their mysterious gods in the most remote places, for example, in the highest of the sky. The question is whether asterisms and constellations were invented before myths, or the other way around, whether myths were invented before asterisms and constellations. In the Ancient Age, it was generally in a parallel way, overlapped, (Ref. 7; Ref. 8)… what is to be expected of people who found it difficult to differentiate fantasy from reality.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the most drastic changes in human thinking on record occurred: it was called the “Scientific Revolution”. Although it finally reached all fields of Science, it started in Astronomy. There were four great moments in that Revolution. In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his book “On the revolutions of the heavenly bodies”, where he presented a mathematical scheme of the Solar System that sought to clarify many of the doubts that still existed despite Ptolemy's Almagest. Most remarkable from the mechanical and philosophical point of view was considering the Earth as a planet. That is, the Earth (and everything on it) is no longer the center of Creation. That place would be occupied by the Sun. With the Earth going around the Sun, the position and movement of the other planets became clearer. But all myths about celestial beings should now be rethought since suddenly the Earth itself became a celestial being.
The second character in this story was Johannes Kepler. He had been educated at a seminary and was a very religious man. He was an extraordinary mathematician, but he also was very mystical: he believed, like many ancient Greeks, that the five perfect solids (the tetrahedron, the octahedron, the cube, the icosahedron, and the dodecahedron) ruled the Cosmos. In 1596 he published his book “Cosmographical Mystery.. demonstrated”, announcing his following idea: that placing these solids one inside the other, it was possible to obtain the relative distances between the planets. These, of course, would orbit the Sun on spheres, the other perfect solid.
This was more numerology than Science, but Kepler believed he could prove it. He contacted the most renowned astronomer of his time, Tycho Brahe, and went to work at his famous observatory. But after more than 1000 pages of calculations and more calculations about the orbit of the planet Mars, he realized that there was an error of 8 arc minutes. This indicated that the planets did not revolve in perfect circles, but in ellipses.
He might have swept under the rug this tiny discrepancy, but Johannes Kepler had the courage of not to do so. In 1609 he published another book, “New Astronomy”, in which he sincerely announced that the theory that he had tried so hard to prove for more than a decade was wrong. He did not understand why the orbits were ellipses, but he understood that the Universe was different from what he wanted it to be. And that humility of changing our own idias in the presence of new evidences is the essence of Science.
Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, as they came to be known, explain in the first place that the real path of the planets are ellipses, which has the important consequence that the distance of the planets from the Sun is (slightly) variable throughout their orbit. Second, when the planets approach the Sun they accelerate, and when they move away they slow down. And thirdly (the third law), the further the orbit of a planet from the Sun, the slower the planet travels through space, in terms not of apparent but of absolute speed. Obviously, there is something in the Sun that makes the planets travel that way, but what, and what is the form of this interaction?
In 1687 Isaac Newton published what is considered one of the greatest books in History: “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”. It explains the laws of Dynamics, or how objects interact with forces, and the Law of Universal Gravitation. This last law explains that between two objects of any mass there is an attractive force that increases with the size of the masses and decreases rapidly with distance. Finally, it was possible to describe “the path of the gods” through the sky with great accuracy. They were no longer unpredictable.
In that meantime, in 1632, an Italian got into a big trouble that could cost him his life, all for writing a book: “Dialogue on the two greatest systems of the World, Ptolemaic and Copernican”. In it, he declared the heliocentric system as the winner, with the Earth becoming one more celestial object, and we humble passengers in a “space ship”, born far away from the center of Creation. The Italian was Galileo Galilei, and much of what he wrote he did it from his own experience, with what he saw with his own eyes.
In 1609 he had aimed the newly invented telescope to the sky and discovered craters on the Moon, and that it also has mountains and valleys, ridges and plains very similar to those on Earth: “... so if anyone wishes to revive the old opinion of the Pythagoreans, that the Moon is another Earth, so to speak, the bright portion may very well represent the surface of the land, and the dark portion the breadth of water. In fact, I have never doubted that if the sphere of the Earth is seen from a distance, when flooded with the rays of the Sun, that part of the surface that is land would present itself to the view brighter, and that which is water darker in comparison.” (Ref. 50).
He pointed the telescope at the Milky Way, that cloudy strip that can be seen in very dark nights, and saw that it is made of innumerable stars, many more than those visible to the naked eye, so the sky is much larger than what was suspected.
He pointed the telescope at Venus and saw that it is not a point but a sphere, and it has phases like those of the Moon. Following these phases he was able to calculate that Venus revolves not around the Earth but around the Sun.
He pointed the telescope at Jupiter and saw four small bright objects spinning around it, today known as the Galilean satellites: Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io, a miniature “solar system”.
All of this had a profound impact in the minds of Galileo’s readers. So much so, that the scientist became dangerous, because, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church, he was destroying an order established with much work since the time of the Greeks. It didn't matter what he saw, what mattered was what he believed. But even though he ended up in life imprisonment, even after being forced to recant what he saw, the change was already made.
“Galileo inaugurated a new era in Science, by putting observation and experience as the supreme judge. The Greeks were great mathematicians and philosophers, but they did not excel in Physics, precisely because Physics is a science based on observation and experience. The Greeks were excellent reasoners, and believed that ‘everything’ could be solved by thinking and arguing. Galileo, on the other hand, admitted the importance of reasoning, but let experience give the verdict. With him begins the era of modern Science” (Ref. 51).
And the telescope continued to give surprises and destroy ancient myths. It not only caused the Sun and Earth to swap places, in 1781 he added an entirely new planet: Uranus. William Herschel, working from the backyard of his house in England with a telescope 15-cm in diameter, convinced those who remained to be convinced that the darkness hid more worlds of the Solar System.
It was something unsuspected. For thousands of years, during the entire age of Civilization, the planets ended at Saturn. From there onwards was the pre-Socratic Empyrean, the luminous hall, where according to Dante, seraphs and cherubs lived (Ref. 52), whose light filtered to Earth through those little holes that were the stars (Ref. 53). These weren’t just scientific discoveries, they were philosophical changes.
Recognized mythology as fiction, the names associated with Uranus are mostly from Shakespearean plays. For example, to its last moon discovered before the era of interplanetary spacecraft, Gerard Kuiper, the first to see it, named it Miranda, the heroine of “The Tempest”, who exclaims in the play: “Oh, brave new world”, to which his interlocutor Prospero replied: “’Tis new to thee”. In fact, Miranda has existed before the origin of Life on Earth, and it would be orbiting Uranus whether or not we were here. The planets are not interested in our myths.
All the latest theories and scientific advances available were applied to the study of Uranus. A little more than half a century after its discovery, disturbances began to be noticed in its orbit that were necessarily of a gravitational nature. By studying the orbit of that world 2 times farther than Saturn, 20 times farther than the distance from Earth to the Sun, the mathematician John Couch Adams became convinced that there was a planet beyond Uranus and tried to convince professional astronomers of this, but his calculations were deemed not accurate enough. Simultaneously, Urbain Le Verrier also made his tremendous calculations, which were more precise to the point that, when finally in 1846 he got an observatory with a good instrument to help him, the telescope located it on the first night. This is why it is said that Le Verrier found a planet (Neptune) on the tip of his pencil.
The Voyager 2 interplanetary spacecraft visited it in 1989, after 12 years of traveling through the cold of space. The photographs of Neptune showed us a blue world with white clouds, reminiscent of Earth, although it is made of gas, with storms as violent as those previously found on Jupiter. Voyager 2 confirmed that dark rings of dust surround it, and six new natural satellites were added to the list of two known. The largest of these, Triton, was just a point in the largest telescopes, but in the postcards sent by Voyager 2 it appears as a place almost as big as the Moon, but of strange pink and greenish ices of nitrogen and methane. The high-resolution cameras showed us that geysers of black vapors of molecules similar to those that exist in living beings erupt among the ice. Neptune ended up being a world of activity and a piece in the puzzle to understanding the origin of Life. The distance was so incredible that, despite the signal traveling at the speed of light, after sending a command the technicians could leave and return 10 hours later to receive the reply from the spacecraft.
Now we have the case of Pluto and its companion Charon. In 2006, in the midst of a growing controversy that Pluto had been erroneously classified as a planet at the time of its discovery, in 1930 (see my article “What!? Pluto no longer a planet?”), The XXVI General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) approved Resolution B5, where for the first time in its History it ruled on what we should call a planet: “The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies, except satellites, in our Solar System be defined into three distinct categories...” and there Pluto was removed from the category of planet.
The attentive reader will have noticed that it says “except satellites”. Hints as to why are given on the IAU website: “For now, Charon is considered just to be Pluto’s satellite.”, but a change in classification “may be considered later because “Actually, there has been no official recognition that the location of the barycenter [the point the body goes around in its revolution] is involved with the definition of a satellite.”. Charon does not goes around Pluto, but around a point in the space between the two, as in Patoruzú’s boleadoras.
To top it all, it shares the strange Pluto system with the more distant Hydra, Nix (or Nox, or Night) and the recently discovered Kerberos (or Cerberus), and Styx, four irregular chunks of matter, of only 50 km x 36 km x 32 km and 48 km x 33 km x 30 km the first two; even smaller, 19 km x 10 km x 9 km, the third; and the fourth that, with its 16 km x 9 km x 8 km, only Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the magical writer of “The Little Prince”, would have had enough moral authority to call it a planet.
In other words, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and Styx would be distant satellites of both larger bodies (simultaneously) but Charon, with its about 1200 km and its rounded shape (“in hydrostatic equilibrium”, according to the IAU definition of a planet) would not be a satellite because it does not go around Pluto, but it cannot be a planet either because not even Pluto, even though it has almost nine times more mass, can be considered a planet, etc.. As we can see, the attempt to classify Charon ends up getting quite confusing. Make someone a horoscope with these data!
So, if mysticism did not become superseded with the Scientific Revolution, how can you make a birth chart for a person walking on Mars, a place where the sun is in the constellation of the whale for 6 days every year? ¿A place where the year lasts 687 days and where the passage of the sun through each zodiacal constellation lasts almost twice as much as here? ¿A place where by looking up one does not see any red planet and instead a blue planet wandering through the sky, called Earth? What about all the horoscopes made during the thousands of years before the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781? Why didn’t astrologers perceive a force on Uranus to guide them to Neptune, and left mathematicians and astronomers to do it? What about the horoscopes made before 1846, when the second new planet was discovered? Doesn’t the distance of 10 hours for a communication between Earth and Neptune sabotage a natal astral chart that must contain the exact time of the birth of the unwary? What about the people who were born between 1930 and 2006, when there were 9 planets in the Solar System and then they became 8 again? What happened to the people who were born before 1930 and who died after 2006? What happened to those horoscopes of most of the 20th century? Were they swept away with the IAU Resolution B5, or did they never exist?
Where are our fears? Are we still afraid of the darkness? There are lights up there, and they are wonderful, wonderful like Earth itself. The understanding that the Earth and what is above are not separate things will someday become common. The Earth is not a thing that is here and the Universe up there, the Earth is part of the Universe. All chemical elements that exist on Earth exist in space, and all chemical elements that exist in space exist on Earth. The Law of Universal Gravitation is called Universal precisely because it was the first that was found to be fulfilled on Earth and on the Moon, and on any planet and on any star and in any galaxy.
Let us agree that although looking at the sky amazes us, it is no less true that astrology implies that it is not necessary to study it to invent myths.
DOES ASTROLOGY WORK?
In the first place, when analyzing History, we have seen that the “astronomy” that we read in the horoscopes of the comic page of a newspaper, sitting on a sofa in our living room, has nothing to do with the Astronomy we see when we go out to the patio and look up. With the help of a good telescope things get worse. Astrology is totally disconnected from the celestial objects it claims to represent. Moreover, when faced with the offset of the constellations by the precession of the equinoxes, many astrologers cheerfully say that the constellations and the signs are different things, and what they follow are the signs and not the constellations. If so, then we got license to remove the prefix astro- from astrology.
Let’s see a perfect example of astrological charlatanism, which can be found on the Internet (where by the way, it is necessary to warn it, 99% of what is there is garbage). It starts like this:
“Chiron retrograde and emotional wounds:”
“In astrology not only planets are studied, but also comets, asteroids and other celestial bodies. Today we will talk about Chiron, the asteroid-comet of the hidden wounds and its current transit.”
“Chiron is an asteroid-comet orbiting Saturn and Uranus that possibly comes from the Kuiper belt. It is located between two planets with opposite energies: it crosses the barriers of Saturn (the planet of limits, structures and order) and enters the field of Uranus (the planet of revolution, changes and originality). That is why it is ‘pulled’ between two vibrations, the stability and the new. The same retrogrades once a year, for 4-5 months.”
“In Greek mythology, Chiron is a centaur (half animal - half man). He was a creature abandoned by his parents and isolated from all of society, discriminated against. However, he was adopted by the god Apollo, who helped him and made him become a wise being who helped others heal. It is known as ‘the wounded healer’, because through their deepest wounds, he heals others.”
“Its astrological symbol is a key, indicating that its function is to give people the key to connect with the spirit and thus evolve. Chiron in a person’s birth chart is closely related to pain and the feeling of abandonment (as well as the myth, who felt hurt by the abandonment).”
“It represents an open wound and the ability to heal it, once its existence is accepted. In the chart, it symbolizes what we can do for others, but what we cannot do for ourselves. This is how, many times, we can help others to achieve their goals, right where we feel unable to achieve ours.”
“Chiron today is in Aries, a sign that represents struggles, impatience and ‘being on the defensive’. Chiron retrograde in Aries means realizing (in general) that something is bothering us, and perhaps we are resisting too much. With this transit, many will feel tired of struggling with oneself, with the hurts of the past, attachments or addictions that others know are harmful.”
“At this moment, probably, there is a situation in which, for example, a friend says something that we did not want to hear, but we had to. For others, it may be a teacher or advisor who will give us some criticism that hurts, but everything will be given in order to learn. It is recommended to be willing to see the wounds in depth, the root of the wounds, the inherited wounds. Acceptance, to work on healing.”
Have a minute? The minor body (2060) Chiron was discovered in 1977 by Charles Kowal between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, and was classified as an asteroid, until then the most distant known (the asteroids of the Main Belt are between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter). The number 2060 means that it is the 2060th asteroid to have its orbit determined. In 1989, unexpectedly, Karen Meech and Michael Belton discovered that this body of about 200 km was developing a vaporous envelope around it, which by definition made it a comet, receiving a second prefix, 95P/Chiron, for being the 95th periodic comet to have its orbit determined. Other similar bodies have been discovered in that region of the Solar System, those that receive the collective name of Centaurs, although in Greco-Roman mythology Chiron is different from other centaurs because he shows himself to be helpful towards Humankind. The name of a recently discovered celestial object is proposed by its discoverer, for approval by the International Astronomical Union. If in 1977 it would have occurred to Charles Kowal, from his mind, just by chance, to call the asteroid 2060 not by the name of the civilized Chiron but by the name of Dolops, his wild brother, how would had been the astrological zafarrancho we just read?
Secondly, we can talk about the four forces of the Universe, the Weak Nuclear Force, the Strong Nuclear Force, the Electromagnetic Force, and the Force of Gravity to discover that none of these is strong enough for the planets to affect us. We can calculate that the force of gravity of the doctor attending the birth of a baby is greater than the force of gravity of Mars. The mass of the doctor is much smaller, but Mars is much further away. The same with electromagnetism: Jupiter’s electromagnetic field is the largest of all planets, but we can calculate that the electromagnetic field of any common appliance in our homes exceeds it. Indeed, the only celestial objects whose gravity and electromagnetism influence the Earth appreciably are, respectively, the Moon, in the form of tides, and the Sun in the form of polar auroras.
Some say that it is other mysterious forces and not the known ones that make horoscopes be. But the Theory of Everything, the one that is tirelessly sought to understand how the Big Bang happened and how the clock of time began to tick and space began to expand, does not include any other forces. Moreover, we talk about the Unification of All Forces because we know that at the very beginning of the Big Bang there was nothing that could generate them. Thus, the tendency is to join forces, and not to split them into new ones.
Some may say that distances do not matter. If so, then the gravity of all objects in the Galaxy, of other galaxies, of the entire Universe, and the electromagnetic force of all objects of the Galaxy, of other galaxies, of the entire Universe should be considered when casting a horoscope or making a birth chart.
But it is not necessary to look for what these “mystical energies” that astrologers speak of would be to know if astrology works or not. You don’t have to know Electronics to figure out if a TV set works or not. You just have to try to turn it on.
For reaching conclusions, scientists use a particular way of thinking, known as the Scientific Method: first you define what the doubt is. Then, you think of a mechanism that could explain what is happening (Theory); then a possible answer is defined (Experimental Hypothesis), and what clues would make the possible answer to be incorrect (Null Hypothesis) are defined. Then an experiment is designed to find out the answer, the experiment is performed, and the data is collected. Finally, the collected data is analyzed and a conclusion is drawn. Before it is reported, the work is made available to independent specialists to be checked for errors.
Of crucial importance is the Null Hypothesis: every Theory must be able to be falsified (not fabricated, falsified), that is, it must be possible to tell if it is wrong. Scientists do not do their best to prove that their Theory is correct, but on the contrary, they do their best to prove that their Theory is wrong. Science does not advance by confirming Theories, Science advances by discarding Theories.
A mistake is to believe that scientific discoveries are the opinions of scientists. Science is not what scientists say, Science is what everyone can see and touch by themselves.
An essential virtue of the good scientist is skepticism. Skepticism is saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Most people, when faced with a question, expect a “yes” or “no” answer. However, in Science the possible answers are not just two but three: “yes”, “no” and “I don’t know”. This last answer is difficult for most people to assimilate, since the human brain cannot withstand doubt. So that when there is no answer, people just, consciously or unconsciously, tend to invent it. The good scientist is a person who has learned to live permanently with existential doubts in her or his life.
In this context, you have to be very careful in “believing” in things. Not because one believes that something exists, if that something does not exist, it will begin to exist; and not because one believes that something does not exist, if this something does exist, it will cease to exist. All belief is, by definition, subjective.
The reality of things is independent of our beliefs.
The reason for the Scientific Method to exist is to seek for the objective reality, separating it from the subjectivity so often misleading.
Because the Universe is as it is, and not as we would like it to be.
There are countless rigorous tests on astrology, but let’s look at just a few:
In the 1950s a French psychologist named Michel Guaquelin proposed that victorious athletes are born when the planet Mars rises on the horizon. His hypothesis was known as the “Mars effect”.
For a hypothesis to be recognized as valid it must be reproducible. Reproducibility means that it must be performed by other researchers under similar conditions and give the same result.
An experiment by Claude Benski et al. was performed with a number of 1066 French champion athletes. The names were obtained from the two major anthologies of “Who is who” focused on athletes. They found no statistical evidence that correlates the athlete’s time of birth and the corresponding rise of the planet Mars on the horizon with success. In other words, the births of the champions occurred at random. On the contrary, they found a selective bias on the part of Michel Guaquelin, who tried to influence the experiment by proposing that certain athletes be included and others deleted (Ref. 54).
Andrew Fraknoi proposed doing something similar with 43 presidents of the United States of America, from George Washington to Barack Obama. As they all had a similar fate, it was tested to see under which zodiac sign they were born. The result corresponds to random chance (Ref. 55).
Bernard Silverman compared the signs of 2978 newly married couples and 478 newly divorced couples to see if they were of “compatible signs” or “incompatible signs”. The result corresponds to random chance (Ref. 56).
In a study by David Henningsen and Mary Lynn Henningsen with 556 married people, it was discovered that people who believe in astrology have, if so we can say, paradoxically, significantly more marital problems than those who do not believe in astrology (Ref. 57).
Geoffrey Dean studied 1393 “Time Twins”, people born on average less than five minutes apart in the city of London from 3 to 9 March 1958. A total of 110 characteristics of them at different times of their life up to adulthood were analyzed, including IQ , reading and math skills, anxiety, aggressiveness, sociability, height, weight, visual acuity, hearing, ability for art, music and sports, occupation, marital status, etc. ... The coincidences did not exceed 3% (Ref. 58).
Geoffrey Dean also performed an experiment on the supposed use of intuition by astrologers. 90 astrologers from the United States, United Kingdom, continental Europe and Australia participated, with 1198 volunteers. Of these, 160 people were selected through psychological tests, half of them with extreme personalities, specifically 40 with extreme extraversion and 40 with extreme neuroticism, and the other half, 80, were psychologically normal, as a control group. Then 45 astrologers made their spells, while the other 45 tried to judge without astrological charts, as a control group. There was no effect. Furthermore, astrologers who worked with astrological charts fared worse than those who did so without astrological charts. This result indicates that astrologers cannot guess basic characteristics of people, so easy to detect as for example if they are extremely extroverted or not (Ref. 59).
In an experiment led by Shawn Carlson, 28 astrologers proposed by an American association of astrologers prepared astrological charts of 116 volunteers. At the same time, standardized psychological personality tests were carried out on the 116 volunteers. Then they gave to each astrologer three anonymous personality test and were asked to identify which test matched each chart. They got it right a third of the time. Since randomly choosing 1 option out of 3 one will hit an average of 1 time out of 3, the astrologers were no better than mere chance. At the same time, the 116 individuals were presented with 3 anonymous astrological charts, 1 of which was theirs, and asked them to identify themselves with one of them. Again, they were correct a third of the time, a hit rate consistent with sheer chance. In order to check that the volunteers really had the possibility of seeing themselves reflected when asked, 3 anonymous personality tests were presented, 1 of which was theirs. They got it right half the time. The error rate is high, but the astrologers themselves said that they themselves could be wrong up to half the time. However, this part of the controlled experiment is very important because it indicates two things. First, people have great difficulty in saying how they are when they are confronted (“Know yourself” was written in the temple of the Oracle of Delphi more than 2300 years ago). And second, that, despite this, the volunteers do have the ability to recognize themselves in psychological tests significantly more times than expected by chance, unlike the inability to identify themselves that occurs when they search for themselves in the astral charts, prepared especially for them by the astrologers. In other words, astrology could not be better than mere chance (Ref. 60).
A review of more than 40 different controlled astrology experiments, reviewed by Geoffrey Dean and Ivan Kelly, involving a total of about 700 astrologers and including a total of 1150 astrological charts, looked for accuracy. The experiments about accuracy reviewed by both generally refer to astrologers who try to guess which astral birth chart corresponds to which individual, with information such as personality profiles or case histories. The mathematical result corresponds to random “divinations” (Ref. 58).
Dean and Kelly also analyzed experiments done with discrimination tests. Discrimination tests involve people who choose their own interpretation of astral charts, usually among three to five more, all of which should be free of clues, such as dates and planetary positions. A total of 10 different studies were reviewed, involving a total of almost 300 volunteers. There is no result that suggests anything else than simple chance (Ref. 58).
They also reviewed evidence of agreement between astrologers. They studied 25 different experiments in which a total of almost 500 astrologers participated. The results are that, essentially, there is no coincidence between the “divinations” of the different astrologers (Ref. 58).
The following is an experiment that can be done with classmates or workmates in your free time: Bertram Forer took a personality test to 39 of his students and told them that he would bring the results the following week. The test consisted of a list of hobbies, reading material, personal characteristics, job duties, and secret hopes and ambitions of the ideal person. When the day arrived, he handed each a sheet with 13 items than were theoretically 13 descriptions of the personality of each student. He asked them to read them confidentially, and then write on the back of the paper how well the set of 13 items described each one, on a scale from 0 to 5. The average evaluation of the 39 students was 4,25, with 40% of them giving the maximum score of 5. The prank was that all 39 sheets were the same, and the 13 short descriptions of personality had been extracted from an astrology book that Forer had bought in a newsstand (Ref. 61).
And we can continue with the list of experiments, but we stop here so that this does not become a sausage.
Who believes in horoscopes? Nick Allum conducted a study in 25 European Union countries with the help of the official pollster Eurobaromenter, adequately interviewing a total of 11 622 people. The most relevant results are that the belief in astrology and horoscopes is more accentuated at young age, in people with low educational level, low professional status, inhabitants of small cities or towns, religious people, with low scientific knowledge, ignorant about the method of testing hypotheses, about technical measurements, and accustomed to a life in which authority is important (Ref. 62).
So that astrologers earn their life by unscrupulously abusing of the ignorant and credulous.
The key word here is pareidolia. Asterisms do not exist in the real world, they are human inventions. Constellations do not exist in the real world, they are human inventions. Signs do not exist in the real world, they are human inventions. Astrology does not exist in the real world, it is a human invention.
Astrologers will certainly make each and every effort to find a way around the facts presented in this article (up to showing complex astral charts made by computer, big deal!), and keep saying that astrology in some fanciful way, still works. They will say that Queen Berenice II (c. 269 B.C.E. - 221 B.C.E.) loved her husband Ptolemy III Euergetes, King of Egypt, so much that her hair symbolizes this, this and that, and therefore you must do this. In the end, astrologers are expert demagogues, those who say just what their audience wants to hear. And as the famous orator Robert South warned us in 1716: “For a plausible, insignificant word, in the mouth of an expert demagogue, is a dangerous and a dreadful weapon”.
Likewise, Benjamin Franklin said it well about the empty self-convincing justifications that human beings use to prepare themselves to do foolish things: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” (Ref. 63).
The fundamental difference between Science and what is called pseudoscience is that in pseudoscience one adapts the World to her or his thoughts, while in Science is the reverse, one adapts her or his thoughts to the World.
Since the Scientific Revolution, the millenary astrology has been recognized as pseudoscience, and has now been supplanted, for celestial affairs, by Astronomy, and for human affairs, by Psychology.
That is why we say that a someone who still believes in astrology is a supersticious and gullible person.
But let's look at some expert opinions on mysticism:
Phil Plait summarizes (Ref. 64):
“- There is no force, known or unknown, that could possibly affect us here on Earth the way astrologers claim. Known forces weaken too fast, letting one source utterly dominate (the Moon for gravity, the Sun for electromagnetism). An unknown force would allow asteroids and extrasolar planets to totally overwhelm the nearby planets.”
“- Astrologers tend to rely on our ability to remember hits and forget misses. Even an accurate prediction may be simple chance.”
“- Study after study has shown that claims and predictions made by astrologers have no merit. They are indistinguishable from chance, which means astrologers cannot claim to have some ability to predict your life’s path.”
"- There is harm, real harm, in astrology. It weakens further people’s ability to rationally look at the world, an ability we need now more than ever.”
And he concludes that astrology is simply wrong.
There is a lot of religion in astrology. As Bill Maher said about religions: “…since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas. And anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don’t. How can I be so sure? Because I don’t know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that’s what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.” (Ref. 65).
And for those who nevertheless still see astrology more as a science, Richard Feynman placed it with other pseudosciences in what he recalled as “Cargo Cult Science”, a strange cult that emerged on the islands of the South Seas. During World War II, the natives considered the American cargo planes a blessing, and invented a lot of rites of crude imitations of personnel and supposed airport technical equipment to attract them again: “They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.” (…) “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in Cargo Cult Science.” (…) “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” (Ref. 66).
In 1975 Paul Kurtz, Lawrence E. Jerome, and Bart J. Bok wrote a statement, signed by 183 other renowned scientists, including 18 Nobel Prize winners, which reads in part: “One would imagine, in this day of widespread enlightenment and education, that it would be unnecessary to debunk beliefs based on magic and superstition. Yet, acceptance of astrology pervades modern society. We are especially disturbed by the continued uncritical dissemination of astrological charts, forecasts, and horoscopes by the media and by otherwise reputable newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. This can only contribute to the growth of irrationalism and obscurantism. We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.” (Ref. 67).
What people who believe in astrology really need is not to learn the facts, what people who believe in astrology really need is to learn how to learn the facts. The issue is not to show them the conclusion, the issue is to show them how to reach the conclusion.
Around 54 C.E., a letter came out of Ephesus, Asia Minor, with the following line: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways.” (Ref. 68).
P.S.: If you were attracted to this article because you are looking for a guide in your life, I strongly recommend you to consult a psychologist; you will not find in the stars the answers you are seeking. Instead, if you were drawn to this article because you like Astronomy, I encourage you to get yourself a telescope, and clear skies for your!
1) Rabo Serpsé, “The Moon is a Place”, Spork Press, Fall of 2001. Available at http://www.sporkpress.com/1_2/pieces/Serpse.htm. Accessed 24 July 2020. A special acknowledgement to Drew Burk for intermediating in this kindness.
2) Christiaan Huygens, “Cosmotheoros”, Adriaan Moetjens publishing house, The Hague, 1698, and Timothy Childe publishing house, London, 1698.
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50) Galileo Galilei, “Sidereus Nuncius”, Thomam Baglinum, Venice, 1610, p. 9.
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54) Claude Benski, Dominique Caudron, Yves Galifret, Jean-Paul Krivine, Jean-Claude Pecker, Michael Rouzé, Evry Schatzman, with a comment by J. W. Nienhuys, “The ‘Mars Effect’: A French Test of 1 000 Sports Champions.”, Prometheus, 1996.
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Illustration: Ophiuchus in John Flamsteed’s “Atlas Coelestis”. The constellation is centered on a Right Ascension of 17 hours 23 minutes 41 seconds and a Declination of 7 degrees 54 minutes 44 seconds South. Note that both feet cross the line of the ecliptic, the “path of the sun”, reaching 30 degrees 12 minutes 44 seconds of Southern Declination, between Scorpio (which he steps on it) and Sagittarius, as can be seen on the map. Although these are today’s coordinates, Flamsteed’s drawing, in the rococo style (by James Thornhill ) was published back in 1729, while Claudius Ptolemy already cataloged it in the Almagest from 150 C.E., and was already mentioned in a catalog of Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 408 B.C.E. - c. 355 B.C.E.), in the same place where it is now. The Babylonians indeed also had a constellation in that part of the zodiac, but its name is uncertain, perhaps Nira, the serpent conquered by the gods whose body is confused with the Milky Way, as is the case with the constellation of the rear half of the modern serpent. Many astrologers will probably take note of this data and find their way around to continue abusing people.