A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.



I ♥ Astrologers

Please don’t tell any of my fellow astronomers, but I love astrologers. Really I do.
Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no belief whatsoever in the proposition that the positions of planets or stars or moons or anything else that is moving across the sky has or ever has had any sort of control over your life, your actions, or your choices. Zero. Really.
So if I don’t believe in what I must assume would have to be considered a central precept of astrology, how can I possibly claim to love the practitioners? Let me count the ways.
Astrologers care about the sky and the positions of the stars and the moon. I care about the sky and the positions of the stars and the moon. Astrologers try to understand patterns in the orbits and motions of the planets and determine their meaning. I try to understand patterns in the orbits and motions of the planets and determine their meaning. In a broad sense, we do many of the same things; it’s just that our methods are different.
Astrology and astronomy are brothers with roots deeper than just the first five letters. Until perhaps the Enlightenment they were inseparable. Copernicus, who made one of the greatest conceptual leaps in human history, pulling the earth out of the center of the universe and replacing it with the sun, was a dedicated astrologer, calculating astrological charts with as much fervor as trying to understand the paths of the planets. It’s not hard to understand why he would feel that some connection should be there. I don’ t think anyone can watch the rhythms and pulses of the movements of the planets and sun and moon and not somehow get a gut feeling that there is somehow meaning in all of that beauty, precision, and symmetry.
But from their common upbringing, the brothers split in adulthood. They each retained their common interest in the sky, but with thoroughly different ways of looking at it. Astronomy moved to the purely objective realm of descriptive and predictive reality. It moved to science. And a wondrous science it is. I can go outside tonight and look up to see the bright glowing star Betelgeuse, the red orb in the upper corner of constellation Orion, and then I can tell you a pretty good version of the entire story of its birth in a cloud a gas and dust, its long existence as a smaller and cooler star with hydrogen atoms fusing together in the deep interior, and its recent expansion to form ball of gas the size of the orbit of Mars. That we have been able to determine this story at all, simply from looking at the feeble light from these little points in the sky, is as improbable as it is incredible. When I see Betelgeuse at night and stop to think these thoughts I am left in awe.
So what can astrology offer that can even come close to matching? It can’t tell me anything, I don’t think, about my history or my future or my personality or my pitfalls. Or about anyone else’s. Isn’t it therefore worthless, or even potentially dangerous? I don’t think so. Astrology is the brother who kept the fascination with the sky but rather than growing an interest in science kept its interest in humanity. Scientific astronomy, for all of its awe-inspiring, mind expanding, and just simply amazing discoveries, leaves people and their consciousness out of the picture. Astronomy involves people looking up at the heavens, but the heavens are never looking back. Astrology, in contrast, never removed that connection between the sky and the people.
But but but, you protest, there is no connection between the sky and the people. The heavens do not, in fact, look back. And, while you are scientifically correct, you are culturally incorrect. You are thinking literally, but you need to think literarily. Good astrology can be like good literature. Good literature builds a world that is not the real world but teaches us more about ourselves than we would ever learn by simply staring in the mirror. No real King Lear ever had a trio of daughters to split his kingdom amongst nor wandered insane on the heath, but do we disdain Shakespeare for writing about it? No, we read, and we think about children and parents, we think about truth and loyalty, and scheming, and we learn more about ourselves and our world. We’re left enriched by stories that are not true.
Again, I have to plead: don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying that all astrology is equivalent to Shakespeare, but neither is all of the rest of the fiction writing out there. The in-flight magazine that I currently have in front of me has both a short story and an astrology page. I would rate them equal quality examples of their genres.
Here’s a snippet of my in-flight horoscope (I’m a Gemini, perhaps explaining my ability to accept the dual nature of astronomy/astrology) for the month of January:
As your attention is consumed by an array of projects, you may spread yourself too thin. Remember to stop and take a breath, if for no other reason than to garner some perspective.
OK. I don’t need an astrologer to tell me that, but it’s hard not to read it and, why, yes, stop and take a breath and garner a little perspective. It’s not such a bad idea.
A quick perusal of the short story, a few pages earlier, gives a remarkably similar take home message, spread out, instead, over about three pages. After reading both of these I am now convinced: I think I will stop and garner some perspective, at least if I can finish a few of these other projects first.
So where are the Shakespeares of astrology? I will admit to not knowing if they exist at all. My astrological reading is only passive; occasionally someone will send me something and in a spare moment I will pick it up and I just might find it a bit intriguing. Here, for example, are some thoughts about Eris by Henry Seltzer, writing in The Mountain Astrologer:
The astrology of Eris seems to be related to the no-holds-barred fight for continued existence that is fundamental in all natural processes, and to taking a stand for what one believes, even if violence is involved. As the sister of Mars, the God of War, Eris willingly sought the battle. There is a side of nature that is quite harsh, a struggle for survival; this struggle is an essential part of the human condition as well, for we are still half animal. Nature can be viewed in a rosy light, as it was in the hippie era of the Sixties, Bambi innocently drinking from a little stream. But underlying this beauty is the possibility of sudden death at any moment, since all of nature's children need to eat. Eris is related to this principle of violence as a natural component of existence and to the concept of the female warrior that embodies it, especially the feminist struggle for rights in a patriarchal society.
As a general discussion of the national psyche circa late 2007 this passage is not at all bad. It covers the war in Iraq, global warming, and the Hilary Clinton candidacy all in the discussion of one name. It certainly does not require literal belief that the naming of an object in the sky is the actual cause of any of the things discussed.
But what is the point of astrology if you chose to read it figuratively rather than literally? Again, you could ask the same question of King Lear. You could ask the same question of the Bible. And you wouldn’t. To ask it is to miss the point entirely.
Here’s a question you should ask though: why tolerate the existence of astrology, with the danger that people might actually take it literally, with the danger that it might confuse and distort science, with the fear that real cause and effect will become confused, when real literature abounds? Why read pithy but relatively generic snippets of advice and pretend they are somehow connected to a particular constellation along the zodiac? Why read more extended essays purporting to be an in-depth analysis of how a recently discovered ball of rock and ice far from the earth affects all of humanity? The answer? There is no reason. I personally prefer my literature to be of higher quality, to make me think and feel more. Feel free to follow my lead. But if you do chose to read it, read it for the reason that I can’t help but love it. Astrology is not just figurative literature about humanity. Astrology cares about the sky. The astrologers who occasionally correspond with me love to hear about new solar system discoveries, figure out orbital relationships and patterns, and speculate about what else might be out there and how everything fits together. I do all of these things, too. I then take these thoughts and move on to think literally their scientific implications. The astrologers take these thoughts and move on to think figuratively about what these mean for humans. But we, astronomers and astrologers, start in the same spot, with an intense interest in the sky. To me, that matters.
Astronomy and astrology are brothers. Brothers don’t always do the same things or make the same choices. But when they maintain their initial ties to where they came from, their connection cannot help but stay strong. What is not to love?

20 comments:

  1. Put you on the Top 10 Sources of Astrology here;
    http://www.toptensources.com/TopTen/Astrology-News/

    :-)

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  2. So what can astrology offer that can even come close to matching? It can’t tell me anything, I don’t think, about my history or my future or my personality or my pitfalls. Or about anyone else’s.

    Have you actually tried having your chart read by a competent astrologer before you drew this conclusion?

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  3. Reading horoscopes is painful! Thinking about astrologers, how they spend their time, their delusions and false hopes... That's even more painful!

    Peter Hook

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  4. Instead of looking at the two as brothers, I prefer to see astrology as the very old mother that gave birth to scientific astronomy only two or three hundred years ago.

    Since thousands of years looking at the stars made people feel the unlimited greatness of the universe. In old times astrologists tried to recognize the fate of the world in the paths of the celestial objects - the silly idea of the new astrology to produce personal horoscopes is even younger than scientific astronomy and was probably born out of needs for money-making by poor astronomists ;-)

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    1. This comment (and Peter Hook's reply) is a reflection of the general ignorance and prejudice that surrounds discussion of astrology. The earliest personal horoscopes archaeologists have found date from the 4th century BC (see Rochberg and others). As the astronomer Edmund Halley suggested, it may be circumspect to actually know something about a subject before you comment on it.
      Thanks Mike Brown for your heartflet and appropriate blog.

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  5. Elmar wrote:

    >>the silly idea of the new astrology to produce personal horoscopes is even younger than scientific astronomy and was probably born out of needs for money-making by poor astronomists<<

    If conning clients were all there were to it, it wouldn't be so bad. At least, the con-artists would be acting rationally. But in fact my experience is that the delusion (actually a form of projective paranoia) infects the astrologers just as much as their clients. In parts of the world (for instance in India) the casting of individual horoscopes is a very deeply rooted and very ancient practice. It is a socially and psychologically embedded meme that even infects otherwise rational scientists. The only good I can see in it is the cover it sometimes provides to people who want to get out of appointments or break off engagements.

    Peter Hook

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Good evening, Mr. Brown

    Astronomy and astrology are brothers … well this word, brother, is a reflection of your sun sign … Gemini.

    I’m happely surprise to read your article. And I appreciate the way you demonstrate respect for the astrologer.

    Thank you.

    Do you know that when i read your article (january 31)... your asteroïd 11714
    was conjunct with the sun in Aquarius. And in my chart, your asteroïd is conjunct with my sun in Taurus. Coïncidence?

    Well, i've wrote a book, in french ( september 2006), it's title translated in english: The astrology new boundary. And the first chapter's title is well summarize by your comment ... the brothers: Astronomy and astrology, a whole.

    Richard Doyle
    http://www.lalyreduquebec.com/

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  8. For the love of Jupiter! Galileo's charting of Medici ... Sidereus Nuncius 1610 doesn't intrigue you? (she sighs)

    Which branch of astrology are you not believing in Natal, Psychological, Mundane, Horary, Financial, Electional, Medical, Meterological, Political? Or you only know horoscope predictions from magazines?

    Astrology is full of and, and, and, and, and times infinite combinations of placements and aspects. Until you keep an open mind and put in the time to look at more than where your sun sits...you're not even experiencing astrology.

    There's movement above...you have to look at how the chart moves. And astrology isn't done...done well...without studying the movement and relationships of those planets and stars you love so much.

    Modern science has come and we've lost introspection and rites of passage -- based on our timing within the movement of the planets -- and we no longer know who we are or what our purpose is.

    Astrology is a system of adjectives used as a tool for that introspection and use as a time piece for marking passages we make in our lifetimes. I am 18, I am... I am 30, I am..., I am 40, I am ... Uranus is opposite my natal Uranus, Neptune is square my natal Neptune...it's mid-life crisis time. It helps to know these things! and to know it happens the same time for just about everyone.

    I may just be a suburban SAHM of four, but I know enough astrology now to not dismiss it. I also know Wolfgang Pauli said all great achievements in science will be found with intuition...found in dreams.

    Breathe, open your mind, let those lovely constellation flavored- neutrinos flow right through you...and be inspired to think outside that box your teachers had told you is there.

    The Greeks weren't using mega telescopes. They were sitting in the dark on a hillside together looking up for entertainment.

    Sit outside, breathe, and feel the sky. Chart it for lack of anything else to do at night except rest and stand guard. Tell your buddy what you learned. He'll tell you. Do it for a couple thousand years and write down the coincidences. hmmm

    There used to be a lot of open-minded folks in this world. We could use another.

    Kaden

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  9. Mike,

    Don't tell any of my fellow astrologers, but I look at astrology much the way you do. I know of no reason to believe that the positions of planets or anything else in the sky actually cause (or even influence) most of the human phenomena astrology studies.

    But that's not the point. The point is that human beings have an ancient and maybe even intrinsic emotional and spiritual relationship with the sky. That relationship, with all its power to inspire, is in danger of being lost to things as mundane as light pollution.

    Astrology helps keep the wonder of the universe alive in humanity and it does that by relating the sky to vital human concerns. Now don't get me wrong. I see too many correlations between astronomical relationships and human events to tihnk that there's not something fundamentally real underneath the human compulsion to relate the movements of the stars to movements in human affairs. I just know that correlation by itself does not tell us what the cause of a relationship is.

    And I also know that no matter what the apparent or real cause of astrology's power to fascinate may be, astrology does, as you suggest, produce its own kind of poetry.

    Astrology is a beautiful, mysterious thing. Not a science, but, as you say, a sibling enterprise in that science, for all its seeming rationality, is at its heart a beautiful but inescapably mysterious thing.

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  10. It is interesting to see how Mike Brown feels pressured to reassure everyone that he actually does not believe in astrology, while deep down it does seem he has some appreciation for this perspective. Sadly, many astronomers (and scientist in general) are more concerned about their reputation and intellectual image. Reading the extremely derisive comments about astrology, it seems the issue really pushes a sensitive button! Too bad astronomers do not really take the time to conduct a scientific research on astrology. (Im not talking about reading horospocpe columns)... It would humble their spirit to realize their prejudice kept them from something so important and fascinating!

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  11. Actually the planets and their movement change our body's chemism. Those of us who study medical astrology observe how the planets trigger the onset of disease.
    The places of the planets in the personal horoscope show not only our psychological traits but our physical appearance too. How is this done? In the moment of birth the baby "inhales" cosmic influences from the pineal gland, and this infusion marks the baby's personal astrological birthchart. These cosmic/astrological influences also construct our whole physiology. Its a matter of subtle chemism that actually creates external appearances and psychology. And then we come to the "character creates fate" thing. Of course character can and should evolve, and so our fate can change.

    We observe the influence of planets on our biology everyday. For example, when transiting Venus is close to our Sun, our hormones change (especially in women) and we appear more beautiful and attractive, with fresher skin. Our chemism changes.

    Scientists have a lot to discover...

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  12. I have a firm grounding in astronomy, both scientifically as well as observationally. When I was the president of the astronomy club of one of our most prestigious universities in the US, a roommate introduced me to astrology.

    Trained in scientific reasoning, I followed the rule of learning the principles and then applying them to see whether or not there was anything to this subject and its claims. I dare say that I did what most naysayers never do, which was to become thoroughly grounded in the matter before arriving at a conclusion. After reading some 85 books on the subject--all of which were carefully chosen before being purchased, becoming completely fluent in the subject, and paying for several nationally well know astrologers to do my chart, I came to the conclusion that there is without any doubt something to astrology.

    Astrology is, however, a subject fraught with misinformation and ignorance, one that evokes strong prejudices. It is also a very difficult subject to master; those who don't take the time to thoroughly learn how it functions, are like calculus drop-outs making judgments about differential analysis. I never dismissed the subject simply because I couldn't imagine how exactly heavenly bodies millions of miles could have any effect on us. I merely learned how to interpret charts and then did hundreds and hundreds of them to rigorously test whether or not the alleged predictable results would appear, which they unfailingly did every time. Who here among the naysayers has done this?

    Because the information stored in a chart is so penetrating in what it reveals to the learned person, I have accepted that its power should remain outside the scope and use of the ignorant and uninitiated. It would surely lead to untold misery if it were to spread wide and far in acceptance, because the average person simply lacks the necessary wisdom and ethics to handle it correctly.

    Great secrets don't easily reveal themselves, nor should they.

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  13. Hmmm we may be brothers, but you guys just get the more expensive toys, govt grants and decent pay cheques, whilst us guys, help out the real folk!

    I'd take caring about humanity and the sky every day!

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  14. The chief difference in viewpoint as far as I can see in astronomers accepting astrology stems from the fact that they are actually looking at astrology with this "cause and affect" mindset. Astrologers tend rather to view the universe and everthing in it, us included, as being intrinsically connected and a part (not apart) of one total living organism. As above;so below. When astronomers look at the heavens they think; how can that way over there have any effect on us way over here? But astrologers view the planets as if they are within us, within life, hence there is no separation, no need for cause and effect thinking. It just is.

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  15. In astrology, as in tarot, the ouija board, etc. the stars and planets are just props for cold reading followed by amateur psychologizing

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  16. Mike: This is not a principle most astrologers believe in: "the proposition that the positions of planets or stars or moons or anything else that is moving across the sky has or ever has had any sort of control over your life, your actions, or your choices."

    In fact, most astrologers DO NOT assert that the planets emit invisible forces that shape our destinies as if we were puppets. Rather, they are symbols of the unfolding evolutionary pattern. Just as clocks tell time but don't create it, the heavenly bodies show us the big picture but don't cause it.

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  17. In truth astrology is the mother of astronomy; those qualities defined as feminine creating the focus of consciousness, spirit, emanating from soul, that we define as masculine. The materialistic, mechanistic approached of science means astronomy is made in this image while astrology has managed to marry both sets of qualities which we have divided into two as masculine and feminine.
    The difference between astronomy and astrology is the difference between a system sourced completely in the material or literal, which is astronomy, and one sourced in both the material/literal and the spiritual or metaphorical. It is in the archetypal understanding of the planets, well described by Richard Tarnas, that astrology turns the mere mechanics of astronomy into all that the cosmos might be. It is akin to making a cake where one may love the ingredients and know exactly how they work together in a material way and appreciate the end result, and someone who makes the same cake, with the same love, understanding and appreciation but who brings forth from a place of awe and wonder, something unique and soulful.

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  18. Mike Brown, thank you for this excellent and interesting article.

    There are some areas of study that incorporate elements of astrology and astronomy, and here we see clearly how astrology and astronomy are brothers, and, in fact, not always distant brothers. For example, here are 2 videos that I made on planet mandalas, which is astronomy but has astrological overtones:

    http://youtu.be/iY8FDNNI8wE

    http://youtu.be/FCgp7vEwQ4I

    Also, some astrologers have attempted to reconcile scientific theory and astrological observations, as explained in these two videos that I made:

    http://youtu.be/N5Np1vLMI6w

    http://youtu.be/WDauRKvM3Vc

    Also, in this video astrologers are encouraged to follow more scientific methods:

    http://youtu.be/lujC6e0pcn0

    In this paper astrologers are also encouraged to use more critical thinking skills and be aware of research methods:

    http://www.astrosoftware.com/21stCenturyAstrologicalThought.html

    Lastly, these papes show examples of applying qualitative and quantitative research methods to astrology; the first one is qualitative and the second one quantitative:

    http://www.astrosoftware.com/harmonicfirst32.pdf

    http://www.avalonastrology.com/GoldForecastReplication.htm

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  19. In parts of the world the casting of individual horoscopes is a very deeply rooted and very ancient practice. It is a socially and psychologically embedded meme that even infects otherwise rational scientists. The only good I can see in it is the cover it sometimes provides to people who want to get out of appointments or break off engagements.

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