NASA wasn’t trying to take on astrology as a whole. But its SpacePlace website, which is geared for kids, doesn’t pull any punches. It says, quite calmly, that there are actually 13 constellations in the zodiac, but to make a “tidy match” with their 12-month year, the Babylonians picked the crappy one to leave out.
Ophiuchus, as it turned out, was the weakest link, so they struck it from the system. It’s still right where it was in the sky. (You can see it in the top right corner of the image above; that’s the Milky Way, and Ophiuchus is right along the ecliptic.) Furthermore, the Earth’s processional wobble about its axis means that the whole sky has shifted a little, because Earth’s rotational axis doesn’t point in the same direction it did only a few thousand years ago.
Rumors are flying, though, that NASA put out a “new zodiac” with new star sign dates. And the salt is real.
“We didn’t change any zodiac signs, we just did the math,” NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown told Gizmodo in an email. “The Space Place article was about how astrology is not astronomy, how it was a relic of ancient history, and pointed out the science and math that did come from observations of the night sky.” The Space Place page goes even further, bringing a little salt of their own: there’s a guy in a button-down at the top of the page telling readers that “Astrology is NOT Science!”
Nevertheless, the Minnesota Planetarium Society carefully calculated the new dates:
Picking on astrology is fun because it’s so easy. The mental gymnastics one has to go through to believe the idea that the positions of stars light-years away actually give us predictive power over the lives of individual mortals based on nothing but their time and place of birth… it’s on the order of homeopathy. It beggars credulity.
And yet astrology remains strangely compelling. Applying even the least little bit of critical thinking leads me to the conclusion that the arrangement of the planets at the time of my birth is irrelevant to what I ought to focus on at work today. But I still identify with and cherish the idea that I’m a Leo. I’ll even cop to having spent money on Linda Goodman books, in the plural. Except… now, according to NASA’s amended zodiac, I’m a Cancer. The splinter in my brain is that it’s equally easy to find justification in my sense of self for the traits ascribed to Cancer. The doublethink is also real.
Perhaps the lesson here is that archetypes have value even if they don’t have predictive power. Systems like astrology, alchemy, and humoral theory all represent a series of attempts to partition the world into understandable ideas — a handle, if you will, a schema by which to approach people or problems. Horoscopes make people feel like they’ve got a bit of direction, which can be the difference between a good day and a bad one. Perhaps there is something to the idea that being born at different times in the cycle of the year could lead to different development. But that has exactly nothing to do with the stars and planets, either. As we evolve our thinking past these first attempts to understand our cosmos, I’m again reminded of Isaac Asimov’s comments on the relativity of wrong.
Either way, rest assured: NASA has not developed a sudden interest in astrology.
Featured image by Stéphane Guisard, via the ESO