A Storm in a Zodiacal Teacup

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The Sun in the constellation Ophiuchus on December 12, contary to coomets of some astrologers.

A recent article by astronomer Parke Kunkle has had the twitterverse and astrologers in an uproar by pointing out that Sun no longer enters the constellations associated with the zodiac due to precession of the equinoxes.

Now, readers of the Panda’s Thumb might wonder why a kerfuffle about a pseudoscience like astrology warrants attention on a blog devoted to evolution. However, there is a parallel between how astrologers respond to criticism and how anti-evolutionists respond to criticism. So you might find it interesting (oh, and yes, astrology is rubbish).

Tropical Astrologers are boasting that Kunkle is wrong, and their system is better than that of Sidereal Astrologers, because their constellations are defined by the Vernal Equinox, and yar-boo-sucks to those silly astronomers (does this sound familiar).

However, in Tropical Astrology the zodiacal sign Aries (for example) actually points to the constellation we call Pisces (all the tropical zodiacal signs are offset from the real constellations by about 23 degrees). Now, most people couldn’t find their own constellation in the sky, but I’m sure they would be perplexed to know that Astrological Aries is the constellation known to and ourselves and the ancient Greeks as Pisces (also, the vast majority of horoscopes that people are familiar with are Sun Sign horoscopes which Tropical Astrologers look down on in the first place). So Parke Kunkle is correct, the Zodiacal signs most westerners are familiar with are not associated with the constellations they are named after (and the Tropical Astrologers have admitted there is no “astro” in their astrology and all the folderol of influences of “watery constellations” and so forth are nonsense).

Yes, zodiacal constellations and actual constellations are two entirely different things. The astrological signs of the zodiac may bear the same names as modern constellations but have little correspondence to either modern constellations or constellations as ancients such as Ptolemy knew them. Both Astrological Tropical and Sidereal zodiacal signs are sections of the sky 30 degrees long and 14 degrees wide, centred on the Suns path. No matter how big or small the actual constellation, the sign associated with that constellation is one twelfth of the length of the Suns yearly journey. Again, we will pass silently over the fact that the tropical zodiac signs are named for constellations that no longer reside in their 30 degree swath due to precession of the equinoxes.

The other thing exercising the astrologers is whether Ophiuchus should be part of the zodiac. Now, boundaries for the astronomical constellations have varied quite a bit since the time of Ptolemy (whose astronomical constellations had very different boundaries to the zodiacal constellations), but both the modern constellation of Ophiuchus and the ancient Greek one defined by Ptolemy had Ophiuchus crossing the ecliptic, as do all the other constellations of the Zodiac. Now we have an astrologer fulminating:

“This is an old hoax. Historically, Ophiuchus has never been listed as a constellation in the sidereal zodiac. It is a constellation out there, but it’s off the ecliptic (that is, it’s not along the path of the Sun through the sky). I’ve read that Ptolemy mentions it in his literature as an off-zodiac constellation, meaning that the Sun never travels through it.…”

Sorry mate, the Sun does travel through it (and has done so since Ptolemy described it back around 130 AD, and probably even earlier based on the Farnese Atlas see the image above), as does the Moon and planets, in fact the Sun spends more time in Ophiuchus than it does in Scorpius. It’s good that astrologers are so familiar with the sky they get their predictions from.

What’s more, several astrologers have suggested that Ophiuchus should be incorporated into the zodiac (see here, here and here). So I wouldn’t call the proposal for Ophiuchus to be a Zodiacal constellation a “hoax”, Mr. Astrologer.

So, basically Tropical Astrologers are complaining that, err, scientists are accurately describing astrology at the same time demonstrating ignorance of fundamental aspects of the sky (and their own discipline). Again, does that sound familiar?

22 Comments

Actually this is a great opportunity for the DI. With both “classic” YEC and OEC outfits, and fans who didn’t “get the memo,” constantly undermining their efforts to create an anti-evolution “big tent,” the DI could divert at least part of its rhetorical resources to astrology, to offer it a big tent in which to hide from these inconvenient disagreements. Behe already admitted at Dover that if ID qualifies as science, so does astrology.

I had to look this one up after I watched the Rachel Maddow Show the other day.

Rachel’s crew had this further confused with a story about the drift of the magnetic north pole and the re-labeling of runways at Tampa International Airport that had its runways labeled with points on the magnetic compass.

Astrology is certainly rubbish. But that said, the astrological signs are merely nominal. In astrology, “Aries” is always the area between ecliptic longitude 0° (which is the vernal equinox) and 30°, regardless of where this falls relative to the observed constellation.

In the last two millennia or so, the equinox (a.k.a. the “first point of Aries”) has drifted from the eastern edge of the astronomical Aries, most of the way through Pisces (the “Age of Pisces”); and, despite what we’re told in “Hair”, the “Age of Aquarius” will dawn in another 500-600 years.

Mike Elzinga said:

I had to look this one up after I watched the Rachel Maddow Show the other day.

Rachel’s crew had this further confused with a story about the drift of the magnetic north pole and the re-labeling of runways at Tampa International Airport that had its runways labeled with points on the magnetic compass.

Sorry, but Rachel’s crew made it clear that these are two different topics, the wandering of the magnetic poles and the precession of the equinoxes. Both phenomenon are separate, but her bigger point was that the stable view of the earth imagined by astrologers and other pseudo-scientists isn;t so stable.

All runways are numbered by being rounded to the nearest 10 degrees, and dropping the zero. Runway 27 should be aligned at magnetic 270 degrees, but could be anywhere between 265 degrees and 275 degrees magnetic. In Fort Lauderdale, one of the runways was very close to five degrees off of the rounded number (e. g. 276 degrees magnetic, shown as Runway 28). Due to the shift in the location of magnetic north since it was built, the runway is now at 274 magnetic, and had to be relabeled as Runway 27. it shows how minor changes can lead to big results when we round off numbers.

The precession of the equinoxes has been known for millenia as well. The plane of the ecliptic has always passed through Ophiuchus, but whoever developed the original zodiac wanted twelve constellations, not thirteen. Astronomers have known that the sun is not in Pisces during the astrological “month” of Pisces for generations, but never made much noise about it.

I would like to know why this is “news,” It has been known for centuries.

Mike Clinch said:

Sorry, but Rachel’s crew made it clear that these are two different topics, the wandering of the magnetic poles and the precession of the equinoxes. Both phenomenon are separate, but her bigger point was that the stable view of the earth imagined by astrologers and other pseudo-scientists isn;t so stable.

All runways are numbered by being rounded to the nearest 10 degrees, and dropping the zero. Runway 27 should be aligned at magnetic 270 degrees, but could be anywhere between 265 degrees and 275 degrees magnetic. In Fort Lauderdale, one of the runways was very close to five degrees off of the rounded number (e. g. 276 degrees magnetic, shown as Runway 28). Due to the shift in the location of magnetic north since it was built, the runway is now at 274 magnetic, and had to be relabeled as Runway 27. it shows how minor changes can lead to big results when we round off numbers.

The precession of the equinoxes has been known for millenia as well. The plane of the ecliptic has always passed through Ophiuchus, but whoever developed the original zodiac wanted twelve constellations, not thirteen. Astronomers have known that the sun is not in Pisces during the astrological “month” of Pisces for generations, but never made much noise about it.

Yup; all this is well known.

But I had a couple of people ask me about that particular Rachel Maddow Show, so I had to go watch it online (I didn’t see the program on TV).

And I could tell from the report why the people who asked me were confused. They didn’t know about these things and thought from the program that they were connected and that somehow the changing Earth’s magnetic field caused a change in signs of the zodiac.

This is often a problem with “science reporting” in the media.

William Young said:

I would like to know why this is “news,” It has been known for centuries.

After I was asked about it and looked at the show, I dug around for other news programs on the same topic.

And it is amazing how much that article by Parke Kunkle was hyped. It’s that breathless, 24/7 mindless chatter that is being passed off as news these days.

William Young said:

I would like to know why this is “news,” It has been known for centuries.

Well, it’s been known by astronomers for a lot longer than that. Parke Kunkle is a bit surprised too. But the average person on the street can’t pick out their own zodiacal constellation in the sky, let alone know there are 4 major (and many minor) competing astrology systems, or that the star sign in their newspaper horoscope actually points to a completely different constellation.

So it is news in the sense that it is surprising to the average person on the street.

Ophiuchus is not part of the astrological system because it was first thought of by the Greeks. The original Babylonian Zodiac did not include it.

Mike Elzinga said:

Yup; all this is well known.

But I had a couple of people ask me about that particular Rachel Maddow Show, so I had to go watch it online (I didn’t see the program on TV).

And I could tell from the report why the people who asked me were confused. They didn’t know about these things and thought from the program that they were connected and that somehow the changing Earth’s magnetic field caused a change in signs of the zodiac.

This is often a problem with “science reporting” in the media.

I may have misunderstood the problems that the “average layman” has in understanding Rachel’s “Moments of Geek”, but then, I have a scientific education and they don’t. I generally look forward to the times she goes over to science.

This reminds me of my Ph. D. orals. In the written portion, one professor gave me an environmental geology question of “You are asked to do a geological evaluation of a nuclear power plant site. Who do you want on your team, what should they be reporting on, and why?” After listing the various team members, I added an untrained layman, who was to review the final report for readability by the politicians making the decision that weren’t geologists. I further specified someone like my wife, who was educated, but not in geology.

During my orals, the professor said he was tempted to mark that answer as wrong, because he knew my wife, and in specifying someone like her I was grossly overestimating the intelligence of politicians.

Mike Clinch said:

I may have misunderstood the problems that the “average layman” has in understanding Rachel’s “Moments of Geek”, but then, I have a scientific education and they don’t. I generally look forward to the times she goes over to science.

Yeah; I like Rachel also.

… and in specifying someone like her I was grossly overestimating the intelligence of politicians.

Watching politicians “solving” problems and issues makes me shudder.

Watching politicians “solving” problems and issues makes me shudder.

Why, exactly?

Flint said:

Watching politicians “solving” problems and issues makes me shudder.

Why, exactly?

Because so much of the political rhetoric is ideological, full of blame-gaming, and devoid of any specifics about just what the real issues are.

Most of the time one has to go to other sources and experts to get any glimpse of specifics that are devoid of political attacking and posturing. This leaves one rather unsure that any issue is going to be properly understood or addressed by politicians.

And the fact that the US Senate ties itself up in knots over petty political vendettas to stop debate, appointments, and in general trying to ensure failure of the party in power is not a good sign that the people in that body are capable of understanding any significant issue let alone coming to grips with it.

And in recent years, the sheer ugliness of politics has driven away capable people who are both experts and non-ideological from participating. While there is some improvement with the present administration, overall it has become very ugly in the last 16 to 20 years.

Many years ago we had representatives in our local district, both State and Federal, who actually could understand and discuss issues in non-political and non-ideological language. Most of what we have today seem to be dunces who don’t appear to care about anything except getting elected to push some ideological agenda.

Mike Elzinga said: A bunch of stuff.

I’m being a little unfair to our two US Senators, one of whom has been in the US Senate for a long time. He is really knowledgeable and has stayed away from the ideological wars. The other Senator is also a hard worker and very knowledgeable. She gets attacked more often from the ideological right.

so, the fundamental question is whether we are affected by a particular patch of sky or a particular patch of stars. postgrads everywhere must be leaping at the chance to carefully correlate this information with rigorously defined personality tests

snaxalotl said: so, the fundamental question is whether we are affected by a particular patch of sky or a particular patch of stars.

Sarcasm aside, this is a good opportunity for science to discuss pseudoscience with laymen. Most people know their (western) horoscope sign, and may even be upset if told that its not what they’ve thought it was for the past 10, 20, 30, whatever years. Telling them that astrologers say they’ve been reading the wrong horoscopes all their life may sour them on the whole notion far more than any dry astronomy counter-argument.

eric said:

snaxalotl said: so, the fundamental question is whether we are affected by a particular patch of sky or a particular patch of stars.

Sarcasm aside, this is a good opportunity for science to discuss pseudoscience with laymen. Most people know their (western) horoscope sign, and may even be upset if told that its not what they’ve thought it was for the past 10, 20, 30, whatever years. Telling them that astrologers say they’ve been reading the wrong horoscopes all their life may sour them on the whole notion far more than any dry astronomy counter-argument.

I’ve used it to get people to find their zodiacal constellation and nearby zodiacal sign in the sky,

Granted that astrology is rubbish, I’d still take an astrologer over a Creationist. Astrology accepts the universe as we know it and is based on one relatively minor addition to standard science: that the stars and planets and their motions have some influence on human affairs. If some form of astrology could be demonstrated to be a correct description of how the universe works, most scientists would be astonished, but it could incorporated into the existing framework without too much heartburn and then studied rationally. It would just be new information added to what is already known.

Creationism isn’t just an add-on. To show it to be correct would overthrow what we think we know in astronomy, biology, botany, geology, anthropology, archaeology, physics… am I done yet? Creationism claims that everything we think we know is wrong, and at its worst accuses existing science of being a cynical hoax that all the scientists are knowingly in on. Even *how* we know things is fundamentally flawed in the Creationist view, because the universe isn’t what it looks like (see attempts to solve the starlight problem with relativistic bafflegab, or attempts to invoke supernatural causes for things that are safely deep in the past).

Next to that, astrology seems practically benign.

[offtopic]

…Aries is the constellation known to and ourselves and the ancient Greeks as Pisces…


A minor/trivial correction as far as the names are concerned. Your (English) names of the zodiac sign the Latin equivalent/translation of Greek.
In Greek many words differ. The same is generally valid for constellations,stars,planets etc.Both for ancient names and modern.
Ie
Pisces(sign/constellation)= (in Greek) Ichthyes (or Ichtheis),
Jupiter(planet)=(in Greek) Zeus,
Mars(planet)= (in Greek) Ares,
Milky way galaxy = well, it’s the Greek equivalent of the English “our galaxy”.Otherwise it would be the Galaxias Galaxias (Galaxy Galaxy or Milky Way Milky way)…
Though nowadays some -not so well educated people- call it “milky-yu-ey galaxias”;
milky-yu-ey = a somewhat phonetic transliteration to english of the somewhat phonetic transliteration back to modern greek of the english translation of the greek word galaxias(galaxy) :D .
[/offtopic]

Deklane said:

Granted that astrology is rubbish, I’d still take an astrologer over a Creationist. Astrology accepts the universe as we know it and is based on one relatively minor addition to standard science: that the stars and planets and their motions have some influence on human affairs. If some form of astrology could be demonstrated to be a correct description of how the universe works, most scientists would be astonished, but it could incorporated into the existing framework without too much heartburn and then studied rationally. It would just be new information added to what is already known.

Creationism isn’t just an add-on. To show it to be correct would overthrow what we think we know in astronomy, biology, botany, geology, anthropology, archaeology, physics… am I done yet? Creationism claims that everything we think we know is wrong, and at its worst accuses existing science of being a cynical hoax that all the scientists are knowingly in on. Even *how* we know things is fundamentally flawed in the Creationist view, because the universe isn’t what it looks like (see attempts to solve the starlight problem with relativistic bafflegab, or attempts to invoke supernatural causes for things that are safely deep in the past).

Next to that, astrology seems practically benign.

I would tend to agree. Astrology pretends to be scientific without pretending to be a replacement for mainstream science.

At best creationism is a relabelling of standard science to agree with religious matters. At worst, (which is what it is most of the time) creationism is a form of anti-science.

John Stockwell said:

Deklane said:

Granted that astrology is rubbish, I’d still take an astrologer over a Creationist. Astrology accepts the universe as we know it and is based on one relatively minor addition to standard science: that the stars and planets and their motions have some influence on human affairs. If some form of astrology could be demonstrated to be a correct description of how the universe works, most scientists would be astonished, but it could incorporated into the existing framework without too much heartburn and then studied rationally. It would just be new information added to what is already known.

Creationism isn’t just an add-on. To show it to be correct would overthrow what we think we know in astronomy, biology, botany, geology, anthropology, archaeology, physics… am I done yet? Creationism claims that everything we think we know is wrong, and at its worst accuses existing science of being a cynical hoax that all the scientists are knowingly in on. Even *how* we know things is fundamentally flawed in the Creationist view, because the universe isn’t what it looks like (see attempts to solve the starlight problem with relativistic bafflegab, or attempts to invoke supernatural causes for things that are safely deep in the past).

Next to that, astrology seems practically benign.

I would tend to agree. Astrology pretends to be scientific without pretending to be a replacement for mainstream science.

At best creationism is a relabelling of standard science to agree with religious matters. At worst, (which is what it is most of the time) creationism is a form of anti-science.

And I would tend to agree with the substantive point that astrologers are not the enemies of science that creationists are. However, it would seem to me that astrology, if it is taken to have a naturalistic basis, demands some new physics at the least. How else would planets and their positions have any influence on human affairs? Or maybe it’s just assumed to be some form of magic (supernatural), and is therefore a religious claim that is beyond the realm of physics.

Astrology is dippy. Creationism is obnoxious.

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This page contains a single entry by Ian Musgrave published on January 16, 2011 7:13 AM.

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