Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

This is the dawning of the Age of... Capricorn?

(One of a series of reposts, for your enjoyment while I'm on vacation.  First posted in January 2011.)

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The hottest news today, for those who believe that their personalities, destinies, and love lives are controlled by the positions of distant planets relative to arbitrary patterns of even-more-distant stars, is: you're not the astrological sign you think you are.

The ancient Greeks are the ones who are responsible for a lot of the names we use for constellations today.  They looked up into the night sky, probably after having tanked up on ouzo and retsina, and instead of seeing what most of us do -- a completely random arrangement of stars -- they saw patterns that reminded them of people, animals, and objects from their myths and folk tales.  Thus we have a vague, wandery curve of faint stars that is Draco the Dragon, a pair of bright stars that is Canis Minor the Little Dog, a crooked zigzag that is Cassiopeia the Celestial Queen, and a little group of six stars that is Waldo the Sky Wombat.

Okay, I made the last one up.  But some of them are equally weird.  There's Coma Berenices, "Berenice's Hair;" Fornax the Furnace; Volans the Flying Fish; for people who like things simple and obvious, Triangulum the Triangle; and for people in the southern hemisphere who like things simple and obvious, Triangulum Australe the Southern Triangle. 

Even earlier, astronomers during the Babylonian times had noticed that the sun and the planets seemed to trace a path against the stars, and that path is the zodiac.  The twelve zodiac constellations are the ones that the sun seems to move through, as the earth travels around the sun; and your sign is supposed to be the constellation in which the sun seemed to reside at the moment of your birth.

But now, astronomers with the Minnesota Planetarium Society have released a bombshell.  Because the Earth's axis precesses, the constellations of the zodiac aren't lined up the way they were during the time of the ancient Greeks.  Precession happens because the Earth wobbles like a top as it spins, and the axis of the earth traces out a circular path every 26,000 years (meaning that Polaris won't be the North Star forever).  As a result, the whole zodiac has tipped by about ten degrees, and most likely you aren't the sign you think you are -- you are the one immediately preceding it, or possibly even the one before that.

Worse news still if you're a Sagittarius; not only are you not a Sagittarius, your sign is likely to be a constellation that isn't even part of the standard zodiac.  During Greek times, the zodiac actually passed briefly through the constellation Ophiucus, the Snake Handler, but because thirteen seemed an unpropitious number for the zodiac constellations, and also because "Ophiucus" sounds like the scientific name of an intestinal parasite, they threw it out.  Now, however, because of the precession of the Earth, the zodiac spends a lot longer in Ophiucus, and it's no longer possible to ignore it.  So if you were a Sagittarius, you're probably now an Ophiucus, and might want to consider a career as a herpetologist, or at least a snake charmer.

And I guess I'm not really a Scorpio.  This is too bad.  I kind of liked being a Scorpio.  They're supposed to be deep, intense, passionate, secretive, and a little dangerous, which I always thought was cool.  Now, I guess I'm a Virgo, which means I'm weak, stubborn, and petulant.  So I've gone from being James Bond to being George Costanza.  It figures.

Of course, I console myself with the knowledge that astrology is pretty silly anyhow; one has to wonder why anyone ever found it plausible that the fact that Saturn was in Capricorn at the moment of your birth is why you like cottage cheese.  (Okay, I made that up because I don't feel like researching what it really means if Saturn is in Capricorn.  But my point stands.)  Right now, I'm mostly curious to see what the astrologers will do -- if they will revise their astrological charts to reflect the actual positions of the sun and planets relative to the stars, or if they'll keep doing what they've always done.

My money is on the latter.  I'm guessing that they'll figure that they've never worried about a minor issue like whether their predictions have any basis in reality, so why start now?

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