Saturday, March 24, 2012

18 January 2011 – Let the sun shine in

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / but in ourselves...

You’re not who you thought you were.  And gravity’s to blame.
Ever since it was introduced by the Babylonians more than three thousand years before the birth of Christ, astrology has served mankind as a means of unscrewing the inscrutable - of finding meaning for terrestrial events in extraterrestrial happenings.  Proxies for the acts of the gods and their minions, the constellations, their rising and setting aspects, and their relative seasonal positions in the heavens have been believed to have an influence on the day-to-day doings of one particular species of bipeds here on Earth.  And that belief is still pretty strong.  According to a 2008 Harris poll, 31% of Americans believe in astrology - the same number that believe in witches (one hopes that it’s the same individuals, but that’s not clear from the polling data).  Belief in astrology is more common even than belief in reincarnation.  One might take comfort from the fact that the same poll reported that 47% of US respondents “believed” in the Darwinian theory of evolution, were it not for the fact that 75% believe in “miracles” (insert obligatory sports joke here).  Anyway, what’s interesting about the poll data is that belief in astrology correlated more with Catholicism than Protestantism, and with regular but infrequent church attendance.  So it’s not all atheists, Wiccans and tie-dyed Age-of-Aquarius types making up the numbers (note A).  A similar poll conducted in 2009 found belief in astrology down to 26%, but this time 17% of respondents were “unsure”.  This was, incidentally, up from 25% in 2005 (note B).
Lest you think I’m picking unfairly on our American cousins, belief in the predictive power of astrology is widespread and very consistent across the English-speaking world.  A 2005 Gallup poll, for example, showed that while 25% of Americans believed in astrology, 25% of Canadians shared the same belief, along with 24% of Britons (note C).  That same poll, incidentally, showed that women were far more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena than men; the ratio of female to male proponents of astrology was 28% to 23% in the US, 33% to 17% in Canada, and a whopping 30% to 14% - or more than 2 to 1 - in Britain.
(Off topic, but that poll also showed that while the male-female split was similar, if not as pronounced, for belief in haunted houses, communication with the dead, and witches, it reversed itself in one specific area: men in all three countries were uniformly more likely than women to believe that aliens had, at some point in the past, visited the Earth.  If that’s not grist for future analysis, I don’t know what is).
Clearly even in this enlightened age astrology has an enduring hold over the human mind.  So it should come as no surprise that the astrological community rose up in righteous outrage when it was announced last week that the zodiac was short by one astrological sign.  Parke Kunkle (yes, that’s his name), a member of the board of the Minnesota Planetarium Society, told the Star Tribune that the precession of Earth’s rotational axis (the same phenomenon that means that Polaris isn’t going to be the “North Star” in another couple thousand years) meant that the Age of Aquarius was, in point of fact, really the Age of Pisces - a blow not only to generations of professional palmists and navel-gazers, but also to Fifth Dimension’s lyrical scansion.  Your “sign”, you see, is determined by the position of the Sun in the sky at the moment of your birth - a matter of some precise calculation.  The ancient Babylonians knew they had a problem with the constellations that the Sun seems to travel “through” over the course of the year, and they simply jettisoned one.  According to Kunkle, “we’re off by ten degrees or so,” and the abandoned constellation - Ophiucus, also known as the Snake-Bearer - needs to go back into the rotation (note D).  It’s not the first time an adjustment has been necessary; Libra didn’t make it into the batting order until 2000 years ago.
What does all of this mean?  Well, for the 75% of us that lump astrology in with fortune cookies, nothing.  But for the 25% that believe in the predictive power of astrology, the thing is...they’ve been reading the wrong horoscopes.  Adapting to the reality of precession means that the signs are offset by a day for every 70 years that pass, so to catch up we all have to shift a little bit left in the calendar.  I, for example, once a Pisces (“generous, caring and kind”), am now an Aquarius.  On the upside, I suppose this means that my astrological predisposition to “escapism, fantasy, drugs (especially alcohol), a small nose, a weak jaw, and a double chin” will spontaneously transform to “emotionally detached utopian idealism” characterized by “a high forehead, a slender figure, an aquiline nose, and a vague expression” (note E).  I would take comfort in the fact that I should be joining celebrity Aquarii like Clark Gable, Nick Nolte, and Alan Alda - except that, thanks to Kunkle, they’re all now Capricorns, so I’ll still be stuck with my fellow former-Pisces uggos Sally Jesse Raphael, Erma Bombeck, and Ted Kennedy.
Meanwhile, everyone born between November 29th and December 17th has now got a new sign: Ophiucus.  The name comes from the Greek “φιοχος” which in fact means “Serpent-Bearer”.  For those of you astronomically rather than astrologically inclined, Ophiucus is located in Serpens, north of Antares, and is made up of two stars and five star clusters: Ras Al Haque (Alpha Ophiuci, an A5 blue-white giant 60 LY distant); Cheleb (Beta Ophiuci, a K2 yellow giant 100 LY distant); and M9, M10, M12, M14 and M19, all globular clusters of magnitude 7-9.  For those more classically oriented, Ophiucus is associated with the tale of Asclepius, the physician who cured Orion of a scorpion bite to the heel.  As the story goes, he became so skilled at healing that Hades felt his realm threatened, prompting Zeus to whack the successful doctor with a lightning bolt.  Zeus thereafter placed Asclepius/Ophiucus in the sky, perhaps as some sort of post-homicide “achievement in the field of excellence” award.  I guess there’s such a thing as being too good at your job.

Figure 1 - Ophiucus the Serpent-Bearer, and his sign

The good news is that the newly-minted Ophiucans get to join Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Connelly, Billy Idol, and (gasp!) Ozzy in the club of late-November to early-December celebrities.  The bad news is that Woody Allen’s there, too.   Another plus is that, for collectors of Zodiac-themed tchatchkes, there’ll soon be another one to add to the mantle-piece (Christel Marrot’s Royal Copenhagen Zodiac line is particularly impressive).

What on Earth does all of this have to do with strategic analysis?  Well, history - especially military history - is replete with examples of great events being preceded by attempts at divination.  Rome, despite its manifest dedication to reason, adopted astrology from its Greek slaves and educators, and positively teemed with auspexes, haruspexes, and augurs of all description (according to the Annals of Tacitus, augurales were even established in legion camps).  Roman statesman regularly had their horoscopes updated to determine auspicious and inauspicious times for business and other affairs, and didn’t stir out of doors on days when the signs were ill.  Even the warning hurled at Caesar by Shakespeare’s unidentified soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March” was reportedly originally issued by a Roman astrologer named Spurinna.  According to the play, Caesar was sufficiently taken with prophecy that he considered heeding the warning; the Bard has Cassius fret that Caesar “is superstitious grown of late / Quite from the main opinion he held once / Of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies,” and worries that ”these apparent prodigies, / The unaccustom’d terror of this night, / And the persuasion of his augurers / May hold him from the Capitol today,” and thereby avert the plotters’ sanguinary vote of no confidence.  Caesar thereafter consults “the augurs”, who fail to find a heart within the sacrificial beast; but he ignores the omen, noting that “the valiant never taste of death but once”.  Back in the real world, Suetonius and Plutarch tell different stories about why Caesar chose to ignore the warning; but whatever the excuse, the result was the same, and he ended up on the Senate floor, done in by a pack of “honourable men”.  I suppose the moral is that if a bearded weirdo shouts advice at you on the street, you should take it.

As for the to-do over Ophiucus, it’ll come as no surprise to the billion folks in India who follow a sidereal (Jyotish) rather than a tropical zodiac. The difference between the two is that sidereal astrology is fixed to the position of the Earth relative the background stars, i.e. the galaxy, whereas tropical astrology is fixed to the position of the Earth relative the solar system.  Sidereal fixation negates the precession problem that is now afflicting the tropical astrologers.  The two cycles coincided and overlapped about 1600 years ago but have been steadily diverging ever since, and now they’re offset from each other by 24 degrees (exacerbating the 10 degree offset of tropical astrology from itself).  So an Indian born under the sign of Virgo isn’t really born under the same “sign” as an American born under Virgo. Add to this the fact that Indians tend to refer to where the Moon is at birth, rather than the Sun, and what you’ve got is a recipe for astrological mayhem.

I guess the bottom line is that the stars aren’t steered by love any more than the planets are guided by peace; they’re both yanked around by gravity, a consequence of which is the precession of the equinoxes, which we’ve known about since Hipparchos figured it out at some point between 146 and 130 BC.  Given that we’ve had the info in hand for more than two thousand years, I’d say it’s long past time for astrology to update its methodology.  Science, after all, adapts to new facts.  While they’re at it, they might consider adding the post-Copernican satellites into their calculations, too, since these have been traditionally ignored despite having been visited repeatedly by our robots.  I suspect their reluctance has something to do with having to write horoscopes explaining where Uranus was and what it was doing at the moment of your birth.

I’m also looking forward life as an Aquarian.  Have you ever noticed how they always come first in the newspaper horoscope listings, whereas Pisceans always comes last?  It feels like I’ve been promoted.



P.S.  From the cool file: Voyager 1, presently moving at 61,548 km/hr relative to the Sun, is the fastest object ever created by humans, and is on course to pass within 1.6 light years of AC+79 3888, a star located in Ophiucus. 

It’ll get there in 40,000 years.

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