Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

It’s time to grow up: Astrology has never been true

In the third episode of Carl Sagan’s 1979-80 science series “Cosmos,” the famed astronomer takes a look at the pseudoscience of astrology.

The episode, titled “Harmony of the Worlds” (or “The Harmony of Worlds”), is mainly a look at the life and work of Johannes Kepler and his three laws of planetary motion, but also explores the attraction of astrology. One shot, at a New York City subway newsstand, shows various astrology magazines and then has Sagan, standing on the roof of a building in Rockefeller Center, showing the day’s horoscopes for two New York City newspapers – the Post and Daily News (the latter’s headline is “The Beatles Are Back!”) and comparing them and analyzing their “advice.”

Kepler, Sagan admits, was an astrologer. He did it for money, as many astronomers did in the 17th century. But Kepler was “the last scientific astrologer, and the first theoretical astrophysicist.”

We like to think we live in a modern age, and in so many ways we do. Technologically, we’ll look backward to someone living in the year 2100, but right now we have some wonderful and amazing things. Still, the remnants of old beliefs clog our system, and astrology is one of them.

I first learned about the nonsensical nature of astrology from Isaac Asimov, who pointed out in a book I read that precession had made all the astrological stuff nonsense. The First Point of Aries, the vernal equinox, Asimov explained, had moved into Pisces. Counting Pluto, there are 33 constellations through which a planet can pass. The suddenly-famous constellation Ophiuchus, which has been around forever, suddenly got famous because of the news – which isn’t news – that the Sun is “in” Ophiuchus for longer than it’s “in” Scorpius.

So the story that really isn’t a story but is old news – that all the “signs” are off – has become the story, with countless articles and columns declaring the Minnesota Planetarium Society’s Parke Kunkle basically the man who stole the spiked punch bowl at the prom, in effect.

Oh my cats and canaries, you mean astrology isn’t true?

Countless spelling-challenged people commented on newspaper rant boards about how their lives were turned upside down. “I’m not a Scorpion but a Ofuican?” went the general rant. People howled at the tattoos they’d gotten that were now wrong, but of course astrology’s spin-meisters were out in force to say that it was all under control, and that the astronomers were basing everything, as they usually do, on science and reality, the fools.

Here’s a great story from The Christian Science Monitor that lays out the whole controversy in plain English.

And while I’m at it, on Wednesday night I took out the telescope and had another great observing session until the rising full moon made its presence felt.

It was an interesting night because for the first time I used my new Orion Dynamo battery as the main power unit on the mount. It worked great, by the way. I had my Celestron PowerTank fully charged for backup.

I had planned to use my new 6×30 finder with the right-angle eyepiece (to save my aching back from those near-zenith alignment stars) but forgot my Allen keys, which were needed to remove the old finder and put on the new bracket for the new finder. I found them after I finished observing – in a closet – and made the change for next time.

Setup was a breeze, as always, and I aligned initially on Jupiter, which is always a fine sight.

After it got darker and the stars came out, I did a two-star alignment on Capella and Rigel, and tried to use Navi as a calibration star, but that didn’t work. I finally settled on Alpheratz for calibration, and all slews were close to spot-on. I revisited Jupiter, slid over for a look at Uranus and then went for the gusto with the 40mm eyepiece and a shot at NGC 869, part of the Double Cluster in Perseus.

The scope slewed beautifully and I got a nice shot of NGC 869, then commanded that it find the Double Cluster (under Named Objects). The mount moved a tad, and there were the two clusters in all their glory.

I also had a great slew to the Andromeda Galaxy and watched it for a while, then tried M1, but the sky was too bright by then due to the moon. I got great slews to M36 and M37 in Auriga, then finished it all off with a slew to my old friend, M42, the Orion Nebula.

After that, the moon was becoming intrusive, so I shut down for the night.

I’m looking forward to a star party during my vacation next month, and hope to have more time to observe since I’ll be off at night instead of working.

Remember, astronomy is real, and astrology is bunk.

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January 21, 2011 - Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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