Astrology: It's in the stars?

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to believe." Laurence J. Pete


Here we are in the 21st century, in the age of education and enlightenment (?) where a large proportion of the planet's population will consult their horoscope before deciding on what course of action to take. To me this has as much relevance to reality as killing a chicken and spreading its entrails on the ground and taking a 'reading' from the resultant sticky mess, as indeed they do in some cultures.

I must confess that I am at a complete loss to understand this strange belief in astrology. Even stranger perhaps is that whenever I have questioned those who do believe in astrology, they have been unable to offer any explanation as to how the position of the stars at the time of their birth can influence the type of personality they will have, or how the stars will determine their 'lucky' numbers or 'lucky' colours. Just some vague notion that "it must have some effect on us". 'Vague' being the operative word.

So why do they believe it? They themselves do not know, and I'm sure I don't! Some will tell you that "it has something to do with gravity from the stars, where they are in the sky will affect you". The truth of the matter that the position of the midwife will have a far more powerful 'gravitational influence' than the stars goes unheeded. Similarly, if you were born at the foot of a mountain range that would have a 'gravitational effect' on you that would be absent if you were born in the flatlands. Why do they not consider that this 'gravitational attraction' would have a far greater effect by an enormous magnitude, then any from the distant stars could possibly have?

I believe the answer lies in the stars. I think people who believe in astrology in some odd way imbue them with a strange mystical power. People who have strange beliefs in 'mystical powers' can not be persuaded by logic alone that it is a falsehood, they believe it and that's that. It could perhaps be argued "So what, there's no harm in it". Isn't there? To allow a popular misconception to guide you through life, often when you are at your most vulnerable, harmless? You could be 'guided by the stars' into making the worst decision of your life, and when it all goes horribly wrong, going back for even more ill judged advice. If you need advice then seek it from your friends and family, not some astrologist who will peer over charts and diagrams and then pronounce what is in store for you. You have to make the best of what life offers you, and when you need to make a tough decision, think about it rationally and logically. Try to judge the outcomes each choice may bring. Seek expert advice, speak to others who have been in a similar situation, speak to friends, self help groups, professional advisers. Do not consult astrologists. They are selling snake oil.

I watched an interesting TV programme recently testing star sign personalities. 30 members of the audience were all given the same personality description, the sort that astrologers give you. The audience were then asked which of them believed the description fitted them exactly. To be honest, I can't remember the exact figure, but it was most of them, around three quarters. Why is that? It was because the description was so generalised, and contradictory, it would just about fit anyone. Typically they say "You enjoy company but at times wish to be alone", or "You are capable of making quick decisions but sometimes feel uncertain".

The main problem with astrology is in its claim that the position of the stars at the time of our birth somehow affect us. I have never been able to find anyone able to explain how. All the performance with charts and 'your Moon is in the house of Libra, with Jupiter in ascendancy" is meaningless unless supported by an explanation of how this affects any of us. If the positions of the stars and planets affect us, then how do they affect us? I have been told variously that it's to do with our planets momentum, the point where it crosses the Sun's orbit, whether or not we are moving away from or towards the galactic centre, and other weird explanations, but never, ever, any explanation as to how.



It is not too difficult to imagine how astrology came into existence, and a look at the night sky today does offer us a clue. The Crab Nebula, also known as Taurus A, M1 and NGC 1952, is a glowing cloud of gas and dust in the constellation Taurus and is the remnant of a supernova explosion that was observed by Chinese astronomers, and others, in AD 1054. At the time of the supernova it was temporarily brighter than Venus, being visible in daylight for 23 days. A supernova is the explosive death of a star in an event so violent that for a brief period that single star shines as brightly as a whole galaxy of more than 100 billion stars. The Crab Nebula today is a beautiful site when viewed from a dark sky location even through a very modest telescope.

This supernova was well documented by the Chinese astronomers for two main reasons. One reason being that they were keen observers of the night sky - keen astronomers - and astronomy has for thousands of years served the very practical purpose of being an excellent calendar. The ancient Egyptians, for example, used astronomy as a means of predicting the annual flooding of the Nile. When a particular star rose above the horizon at particular point that was an indicator that on average the Nile would flood within two weeks. This would be because the star always reached that position the same time each year of course.

It is not then so surprising that in using the position of the stars to predict the flooding of the Nile and the changing of the seasons, that the position of the stars also came to be used to predict future events that were not tied into the regular changing of the seasons.

Returning to the Crab Nebula and the Chinese astronomers of AD 1054, they were not only astronomers, but also served the dual role of astrologers. The astronomers/astrologers would look for any changes in the night sky - comets, supernova, asteroids - anything that was outside the normal regular predictable pattern. These unusual events were then interpreted by the astronomers (astrologers) in the light of current events and taken to be predictions. For example, an event such as the Crab Nebula supernova could be taken as a sudden change in events, such as the start of a long awaited attack by a rival army. The astronomers would then warn the emperor and thus confirm their position as powerful mystics with the ability to foretell the future. It is not difficult to imagine how by keeping an open ear and watchful eye, the astronomer/astrologers would be able to make accurate 'predictions' on a fairly regular basis, especially self-fulfilling prophecies. Perhaps this is how the belief in astrology grew, from simply using the position of the stars as a calendar to using them to predicting annual seasonal events - such as the flooding of the Nile - to predicting events that were not related to the seasons.

Can there be any possible scientific explanation for why the belief in astrology could be correct?


A scientific explanation?

Dr Percy Seymour, a British astronomer, claims the planets may exert an effect indirectly, by stirring up magnetic activity on the Sun. He says that during the 1960s, researchers at NASA found evidence that when the planets were in conjunction or opposition with the Sun - that is, in line with the Sun, looking either towards the Sun, or directly away from it - solar magnetic storms became particularly violent. Dr. Seymour argues that this may in turn create outbursts of fast-moving particles from the Sun, the solar wind, which are known to affect the Earth's magnetic field. It is these changes in the geomagnetic field that Dr. Seymour believes can affect humans at birth, affecting their nervous systems, and altering their personality.

All very interesting, but it does not tie in with the beliefs of astrologers. They claim that our personalities are very similar to others who are born at the same time of year, such as all those born during the period 20th January - 18th February, the sign of Aquarius, having similar personalities. This is relating our personality types to only one thing, the time of year we are born, which has no connection at all with any changes in geomagnetic fields, which are completely random and unpredictable. I am very interested in these changes, and keep a close watch on my magnetometer which measures these changes, as they may herald the start of the 'Northern Lights' - the aurora created when high energy particles ejected from the Sun interact with our atmosphere.


Personality types

Could there be any explanation as to why the time of year could affect our personalities? Perhaps the alignment of the stars has nothing to do with it, other than indicate the time of our birth, and in reality this is what matters? This could mean, for example, that it isn't the stars that are having an effect on us, just the time of year. Perhaps it's hours of darkness, or the average temperature, the weather, the height of the Sun above the horizon? But again, these things are not consistent. A person could be born in Scotland say mid winter and the weather could be a mild and sunny with a temperature of 12 Centigrade, and stay that way for weeks. A person born in the same house exactly a year later may be born during a blizzard and temperatures of -20 Centigrade. Yet even with these vast differences in local conditions these two people are expected to have the same personality because they share the same birthday. Doesn't seem logical does it. If not the weather due to the seasons, then what else could it be. In the example given the only thing that was the same for both births was the position of the Sun, both as seen in the sky and in relation to the Earth's annual orbit around it. The Sun however, is just a star like any other, we just happen to be very close to it. The position of the Sun above the horizon cannot be the factor that influences our personality, it will be at very different altitudes above the horizon in the far north of Scotland compared to the far south of England. We can rule out any connection with the position of the Sun in the sky just as we can with the time of the year and the seasons. What else is there?

When astrologists create an astrological chart for an individual, they use that person's date and place of birth to show the position of the stars and planets as they appeared in the sky at the time of birth. This is very simple to do. There are a number of very good computer programmes that can be purchased by keen astronomers, such as myself, that will reproduce the night sky from any location in the world, or even off it, for a period covering a few thousand years into the past to a few thousand years ahead. Very useful for discovering what is visible in the night sky from your location. So armed with the knowledge of how the sky appeared at the moment of your birth they then proceed to tell you how your life is mapped out. It is interesting to note that in order to do this they need to know where all the planets in our solar system are at the moment of birth in relation to various designated areas of the sky. The only conclusion that can be gained from this is that it is the position of the planets that is important, not of the stars. What effect could the planets have on us? The only possible effect is that of gravity, nothing else about the planets could have any effect upon us, they are just lumps of rock orbiting the Sun just as planet Earth is. The problem here is that the gravitational influence of the planets on us is so minute as to be undetectable, is far less than the gravitational effect of the position of the mid-wife standing next to the bed, and completely swamped by the gravitational effect of the Moon. That can cause the ground beneath your feet to rise as much as 40 cm when it passes overhead! We can safely rule out the position of the planets.

Could the position of the Moon have any astrological bearing? Some people will tell you that the Moon does affect our personalities, especially at full Moon, hence the term 'lunatic'. However, statistical crime records show that there is no change in the behaviour of people at the time of the full Moon, despite it being a commonly held belief. Nurses and doctors who work in hospitals caring for the mentally ill do not report any difference in the behaviour of their patients at the time of the full Moon. It is just one of those old urban myths. What force could the Moon exert on us anyway? The Moon, like the planets, is just a lump of rock. It is in orbit around the Earth and exerts a strong enough gravitational force to raise and lower sea levels and the continents. At the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, for example, the tidal range is a massive 40 feet, and the continent of Europe is lifted 40cm (16 inches) each day as the continent comes directly face to face with the Moon. Other than that it only reflects sun-light onto us.

The Moon does have a gravitational effect upon us, although what changes that could produce in our behaviour, and our future actions, is unknown, if any! It is difficult to imagine how the gravitational force exerted upon us by the Moon at the time of our birth could have any influence on our personalities or future actions.

We have examined a number of possible explanations as to why the time of our birth may have some influence on us, but have been unable to discover any consistent or logical explanation. We have ruled out the position of the Sun, Moon and planets as having no bearing on the matter, at least that we can detect. We have also ruled out any connection with the time of the year as having any connection with the type of person we are. What else is there? There is nothing else that I am able to think of. It may be argued that there is a force that has a direct effect upon us, but the nature of this force has so far eluded us. It is not possible to argue against this hypothesis, but that is not the point, the point is where is the evidence to support such a wild claim?

To support such a claim would require evidence that the world's population can be roughly divided into twelve distinct personality types depending on the time of year they were born, and there is no such evidence. Even if such evidence were to be produced, that in itself cannot be offered as definite proof that the astrologists have got it right, it would only mean that the world's population can be categorised into twelve different personality types.


Predicting the future

Apart from defining personality types determined by a person's date of birth, astrologers claim to be able to predict events that will occur at some future point in that person's life. This should be very simple to test. To begin, I went to a web site, gave all the relevant information concerning my date and place of birth, and was given the following forecast:-

"Jupiter conjunction Pluto: Self-betterment

1 March 2003 until 2 March 2003: This influence brings the urge to achieve to the forefront of your life. You will make great, even extraordinary, efforts to gain success as you personally define it. You work harder and strive to gain your objective with every ounce of energy at your disposal. Consequently, this influence often occurs just at the moment when some tremendous effort in your life bears fruit. Sometimes there is a tremendous drive to gain power, and this influence can bring you power even when you are not trying especially hard to get it. Remember that each person has opportunities for a different kind of power. It may be great or relatively humble in terms of the larger society, but it will be meaningful to you."

As it happens, this 'prediction' was already two weeks in the past, and thus allowed me to test its accuracy. I have to say that it bears no relationship at all to how I felt during that period, about 'great efforts to gain success'. But notice how later on it employs the usual trick of contradiction. 'It may be great or relatively humble in terms of the larger society, but it will be meaningful to you.' In other words, I may, or may not, make great efforts to gain success. Brilliant!

In order to test the accuracy of a prediction it is of course necessary for the prediction to be clear and unambiguous. Having taken the trouble to check many 'predictions' I soon came to the unsurprising conclusion that they do not meet these requirements. The example of mine that I have given is typical example of so called predictions. They tend on the whole to be based mainly on emotions and feelings, which are of course very subjective.

I would be a lot more impressed if instead of vague and contradictory 'predictions' about one's emotions and state of mind, a definite prediction of some event were made. If for example an astrologist were to predict that next week I would trip over and break my arm, I would be very impressed if that event actually came about. However, astrologists do not make that sort of definite and testable 'prediction'. I wonder why that is?


Free will

If we were, for the sake of argument, prepared to accept that it is possible to predict the future, then we would have to accept that we do not have free will. We would have to accept that our lives are pre-ordained, that what will be will be. That being the case we may as well all stay in bed.


What do I think?

It has to be said that astrology has no evidence to support it whatsoever, not statistically or experimentally, nor even have a working hypothesis. Those that believe in it do so simply because they wish to. I don't.

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