“I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.”
- Arthur C. Clarke
Man has always been curious about the night sky. I sometimes picture our distant ancestors roaming through Africa’s Great Rift Valley, gazing up on a clear summer’s night and becoming awash with marvel and wonder at the tapestry laid out above them; much in the same way as I experienced as an awestruck child echoing the sentiments unquestionably felt by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton just a few centuries before. Never has there been more justifiable a spectacle as unanimously admired throughout human history than the ethereal magnificence of a starry night sky.
But contrary to what the rather crude title of this blog suggests, it is not with too much ridicule that I refute astrology; I think if more people took the time to look upwards instead of inwards we wouldn’t have half the triviality and petty squabbles we are surrounded by in our every day lives. I can see how the grandeur of the heavens can be spellbinding enough to trigger belief in a connection between us and the stars, but what was once a genuine search for the meaning of human existence has mutated into a money-making industry based entirely on non-scientific speculation that preys on the vulnerability, insecurity and curiosity of millions of people the world over.
Some may assert an honest interest and/or legitimate pursuit of the ‘science’ of astrology, but I can only assume that what they’re really laying claim to is a deluded kind of hobby, a pseudoscience at best. Science is the method in which testable predictions can be made about the Universe; to date, not a single one has ever happened by way of astrology.
*DISCLAIMER* Before I begin I want to make it abundantly clear that I realise astrology has many furrows and off-shoots, and I don’t claim to have researched each and every astrological avenue; this blog is merely a broad look at the core principles involved and how they withstand to scientific scrutiny. I’m sure many astrologers will denounce the credibility of other astrologers’ methods (and visa versa) but rather than pursue semantics, I am addressing the fundamental assumptions on which astrology is founded and why, in my opinion, they lack any shred of validity in today’s society. If this causes offence, well perhaps you should have seen it in your tabloid horoscopes/tarot cards/tea leaves that a tall, dark stranger would appear and insult your mystical beliefs; in which case you really shouldn’t be very surprised, or indeed offended by, this blog in the slightest.
#1 – What force connects us?
Astrology, in its broadest sense, uses the positions of planets and stars at the time of our birth to predict future events in our lives. This implies that the planets and stars somehow affect us, physically, in such a way that their position relative to each other (and indeed, us) at the time of our birth has a very real – and more importantly, tangible - influence over what will happen in our futures.
A physical connection means a force must exist.
The Universe as we know it is composed of 4 fundamental forces: the strong and weak nuclear forces, whichact only at very short distances and govern the interactions between subatomic particles and atomic nuclei; electromagnetism, which acts between electrically charged particles, and gravitation, which acts between masses. Absolutely everything we know of in the entire Universe happens because of one or a combination of these 4 forces at work, and we understand them well enough to send rockets to the Moon, supply electricity to homes, create medicines and technology, and blow up entire Japanese cities. This doesn’t go as far to say we know everything there is to know, but from the inexorably vast leaps in scientific knowledge through the ages we can safely say we have capitalised on what we do know, and heroic feats have been accomplished by those endeavouring to seek and discover new and terrifying advancements of mankind. So for those that decree an ‘unknown’ force as the puppeteer of astrology I say this: if science, in all its rigour and tenacity, knows nothing of this force by now, then I can assure you that practitioners of astrology know even less.
It seems only logical then to discount the nuclear forces, due to their inherent proximity limitations, and concentrate instead on gravity and electromagnetism as possible candidates for the mystery force of astrology.
If the supposed connection between us and the planets was down to gravity, then due its own definition the gravity experienced between a human and a planet would be proportional to the two masses involved and inversely proportional to the distance between them. This means that both mass and distance are defining characteristics of the ‘force’ of gravity (Newton proposed gravity as a force; Einstein later postulated that gravity is simply the act of falling into the curved spacetime caused by a massive object – see a previous blog ‘Once upon a spacetime‘).
This raises two very important points: 1) if gravity is the force used by the workings of astrology then any object of mass will affect the predictions; moreover, the larger the object, the larger the force of gravity. 2) the distance between an object and the Earth is also vitally important – the further away something is the less ‘pull’ of gravity it exerts. The implications are therefore very clear, objects with more gravity in relation to the Earth exert a higher force, meaning they should have more influence in astrological terms.
However, as will become repetitively apparent, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Jupiter, for example, holds no more sway than Saturn even though it is much nearer and far larger. Diminutive Pluto, barely even two-thirds the size of our moon, has no less say-so than Mercury even though it is a few billion miles further away from the Earth. Seemingly exempt are also the various moons, other dwarf planets, and asteroids of the Solar System; indeed, two moons outsize the planet Mercury and a further five outsize Pluto. The dwarf planets Eris and Makemake are comparable to that of Pluto and there are many other TNOs (trans-Neptunian objects) well over two hundred miles in diameter, usually found in a region known as the Kuiper Belt (a vast reservoir of asteroids, similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but found much farther out past Neptune).
Solar system objects to scale
The main planets and dwarf planets to scale
So knowing what we do about gravity, it does beg one glaringly obvious rhetoric: surely the Moon, being as massive and as close as it is, would have the only influence over our lives? The other planets (somewhat larger than the Moon, granted, but are so much further away than they are more massive) exert next to no gravity in comparison, so how would they have any influence whatsoever over our lives when pitted against the huge rock on our cosmic doorstep? It’s like saying a lit match several fields away has equally as likely a chance to burn you as the raging bonfire you are standing next to.
One might go so far as to say that the actual planet we reside upon exerts more gravity than anything else; the very fact we remain rooted to the spot as the Earth spins at 1000 mph attests to it, and yet the colossal mass directly in contact with our feet has about as much input into astrological predictions as a penguin does in an avalanche.
Of course the real nail in the coffin for gravity being the solution to astrology is its inherent weakness when compared with the other three forces. It is so much weaker, in fact, that a simple fridge magnet can beat the entire Earth in a tug-of-war with a paper clip. Not even the whole of the Earth’s mass, pulling at the paper clip gravitationally, can stop the humble magnet from picking it up. This shows just how ‘superior’ electromagnetism is as a force when compared to the strength of gravity. To suggest the planets can gravitationally affect our futures due to conditions set when we were born is, quite simply, ludicrous.
So what about electromagnetism then? The problem with this theory is that electromagnetism deals with the interaction of electrically charged particles, either in the form of electric or magnetic fields, and because of the composition of the various planets, not all have electric or magnetic fields – they can be neutral. All the planets would need to be equally ‘charged’ for any astrological predictions to be made and as far as is known to science — and more importantly, astrologers — this just isn’t so.
In any case, by far the largest emitter of anything electromagnetic is the Sun itself. Making up over 99% of all the mass in the Solar System, the Sun dwarfs anything else in the neighbourhood and if electromagnetism is the source of astrology’s mysterious force, then any and all predictions about our futures would only deal with the Sun and nothing else (to do otherwise would be akin to thinking that spilling a glass of water during a tsunami made a noticeable difference!). Again, this is not so in astrology.
#2 – why some ‘planets’ and not others?
There’s more than just 9 (pardon, 8) planets. Pluto’s declassification as a ‘proper’ planet was bad enough for astrologers, but since then many other Solar System objects, comparable in size, have been discovered, with undoubtedly many more on the cards. Unless astrologers grant some special pass to the main 8 planets, why should they be dealt with any differently to any other object orbiting the Sun?
We already established that gravity – or more precisely, mass and distance – cannot figure in astrology, and this isn’t an opinion, this is according to astrologers themselves and the way they treat each planet equally when formulating predictions. So by their own admissions, astrology cannot be based in gravity.
So if mass and distance are redundant, and the only factor of importance is proper classification as a planet, then what do we do about the hundreds of new planets that have been discovered orbiting other stars in our galaxy? Distance clearly plays no part, and these newly discovered planets are proper planets, so why shouldn’t they figure?
#3 – The falsifiability of star sign astrology
If science has been dropping bombs on ignorance, stupidity and mumbo-jumbo over the last few centuries, then the one about every person on the planet being the wrong star sign has got to be up there with other great explosions of scientific sanity such as carbon dating and the Earth being spherical. Yes, when I first heard this it amused me too. The fact that there are actually 13 signs in the zodiac only added more sprinkles to an otherwise already very tasty slice of cosmic in-your-face cake, which I shall now explain.
There are 3 critically essential problems with the branch of astrology commonly found in newspapers and magazines. Star sign astrology, or horoscopes, deal with the apparent position of the Sun relative to a set of constellations when someone is born (otherwise known as the zodiac). They claim that being a particular star sign assigns someone particular and specific traits about their personality, and allows for the determination of certain future events in their lives – usually days, weeks or months in advance.
The first problem is that of axial precession. If the Earth was perfectly spherical all the time then it would spin about its axis and demonstrate no ‘wobble’ whatsoever; kind of like the wheel of a new car as it spins around the axle. But due to the Earth bulging slightly at the equator and the fact that the Sun, Moon, and other planets tug at it gravitationally, the spin becomes ever so slightly offset and over the course of approximately 26,000 years the Earth’s north direction traces out a complete, but small, circle in the night sky. Analogous to this would be a spinning top when slightly off-balance; the toy would begin to wobble away from dead upright and trace a small circular motion about the centre (but of course spinning tops obey friction laws and the Earth’s gravity, and so the circle becomes larger and larger until it topples over). This means, many years from now, that Polaris (the North Star) will no longer be our northern reference point in the sky; instead it will move towards the stars Deneb and then Vega, before returning once more to Polaris. This precession causes the apparent position of the Sun against the backdrop of the constellations to move over time, meaning that the Sun will not always be in the same sign of the zodiac at the same time each year. Furthermore, over the course of 26,000 years the Sun actually regresses through each one of the zodiac constellations until it is back where it started, meaning that astrology’s dependence on the position of the Sun relative to the stars is complete and utter nonsense.
This stellar regression has resulted in star signs shifting forwards in the year by about a month since the zodiac was constructed 2000 years ago, so pretty much everyone alive is now a different star sign; cancers are now Gemini, Capricorns are Sagittarius and so on and so forth. Those born in the first half of December might be intrigued to know that they are actually Ophiuchus, the ’13th’ sign of the zodiac. Left out by astrologers in favour of only wanting a collection of 12 star signs, Ophiuchus is evident in the sky for all to see but is very seldom spoken of, lest known or accepted, by astrologers and the general public alike. Just another example of astrology cherry-picking and ignoring the evidence put forward by astronomers.
The second problem concerns the movement of the stars over time. All stars in the Universe career through space at astonishing speeds, bound by the force of gravity as they orbit the centre of mass at the centre of their respective galaxies. Stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, are not fixed relative to the Earth. They are moving relative to us and we are moving relative to them; it only seems like the stars are continuously found in the same place each year because of the immense distances involved. You only have to look out from the beach to a small boat on the horizon to see that it appears to barely move. It gives the illusion of staying still even when crashing through the waves at a given rate of knots. After a short while you might notice a small degree of movement to the left or right, and this is analogous to the astronomical time it would take for a star many light years away to appear to have moved in the sky at a given rate of tens of thousands of miles an hour! Every single one of the constellations we see now looked completely different to the dinosaurs and will look completely different in the future, thus rendering star sign astrology and its dependence on the zodiac totally falsifiable.
Thirdly, a process known as cognitive bias can occur because of the vague and highly ambiguous predictions of star sign astrology. A bit like tv weather forecasts, the outlook for a given region can only be honed down to the precision of ‘widespread gales with a chance of rain’, or ‘patches of cloud’ and ‘sunny spells’. The same is evident in all horoscopes ever written. ’Your luck will turn’, ‘beware of financial problems, ‘you will meet someone who does something’ are all common ‘predictions’ of horoscopes and yet they are so vague it is any wonder why people take the slightest notice. The deliberate ambiguity only heightens the inherent lack of legitimacy. Cognitive bias is the process by which people act upon what they have heard. So in other words, after hearing they might be lucky or make some money, or meet someone, they will unconsciously go out of their way to make it happen. This might take the form of taking more chances to become lucky, or deciding to go to a nightclub after all, thus increasing the chances of ‘acting out’ their horoscope. This applies to the traits assigned to their star sign too; an individual who is a Cancer might grow to fit their profile as outlined by astrology because they subconsciously think it’s the way they are meant to act.
There is also one strikingly obvious flaw with star sign astrology. Assuming that statistical averages hold true (and they always do when dealing with large numbers) this means that roughly an even amount of people are born into each star sign, meaning that if we divide all the 7 billion people of this planet into the 12 [accepted] signs of the zodiac, there will be over 580 million people with the same star sign as you. Suggesting that my weekly horoscope in the Daily Mirror applies to 580 million other people makes the prediction of me coming into financial success that little bit less fortunate (not to mention economically unlikely!). Also there are only so many tall, dark and handsome strangers on this planet.
Finally, if astrologers choose to ignore axial precession and the movement of distant stars, they cannot dispute that each orbit of the Earth around the Sun does not bring it back to exactly the same spot. On average, the Earth is 44,000 miles further away each year, implying that someone born on the same day as you the following year would not have been in the same position as you were in relation to the Sun. Again, this throws the validity of astrology right out the laboratory window.
#4 – Consistency, consistency, consistency!
If a mysterious force as of yet known to science (but somehow understood and utilised by astrologers) really does exist between humans and the stars, then proof would be in the planetary pudding, so to speak. This would take the form of a certain level of consistency between predictions made by astrology as a whole; and yet there is not one ounce of this pudding anywhere to be seen. In fact, some statistical tests have debunked the claims of astrology so heavily that it’s been stated that pure chance has, in many instances, been more consistent than astrological predictions (Dean and Kelly 2003). And that doesn’t even make mathematical sense!
You only have to compare weekly horoscopes between various magazines, newspapers and tv shows to see the inconsistencies.
Astrology, clearly and indisputably debunked.
It is often said that recollections of certain memories are finite, that experiences you thought inexhaustible at the time are actually more precious than you know. Included in this I would undoubtedly put the memory of a crystal-clear, star-filled panoramic view of the night sky. I’m sure as children most of us spent some time peering upwards after dark with all sorts of questions about the cosmos reeling through our curious brains. But when was the last time, post childhood, we remembered such an experience? I know a certain percentage of you will recall — probably with a certain nostalgic fondness — a time spent with friends outside on a clear night, lying on some grass, gazing up at the stars and trying to differentiate between planes, shooting stars and UFOs, but how long ago was it? And more importantly, how many times will you ever experience it again? Is it inconceivable then, in the most regrettable of ways, that this particular childhood memory might be the last, or indeed only, time you’ve ever spent really appreciating the starry night sky? How long before the memory fades into obscurity and is lost forever?
What is now and what was surely a glittering display of celestial magnificence in the times of our first ancestors, the stars are rightly a spectacle to be cherished and used as a catalyst for imagination and discovery. There is absolutely no need to conjure an imaginary bond between us and these amazing objects, much like the unnecessary invention of gods we seem to require to assign meaning to our lives. It should be enough that we are able to bear witness to the view, and as science delves deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos, so too do we learn more about the Universe in which we live, and ultimately about ourselves in the process.
Written by Chris Phoenix Clarke
What looks like a star-filled sky is actually the Hubble telescope’s most distant image ever recorded. Each point of light is an entire galaxy, formed in the early universe!