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November 30, 2003

Stars and Signs Forever

Every day, tens of millions of Americans read their horoscopes.

The predictions of love and wealth are, if not reassuring, at least diverting. The personality profiles -- based on the division of the night sky into 12 houses, each carrying a myth-laden zodiac sign -- offer food for thought. And the compatibility advice -- based on the relationship between one's birth sign and various planets -- may serve as a kind of low-cost, low-yield therapy.

But in an age awash with supposedly useful information -- market forecasts, political polls, gene discoveries -- how many really take their horoscopes seriously? Has the predictive power of modern science exposed astrology as a hoax? And if so, have we simply moved on to other dubious forms of divination?

In his new book, "The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction" (Harcourt), writer David Berlinski notes that until the time of Isaac Newton, many great astronomers were also astrologers, and astrology contributed decisively to the development of our ideas about the physical universe. And old habits die hard: Berlinski sees traces of astrology -- which he defines in an interview as a vast scheme of correlation between distant objects and human circumstances, aimed at assessing characters and predicting events -- alive and well in molecular biology and other branches of modern science.

With a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton and several lyrical tracts on subjects such as calculus and algorithms to his credit, Berlinski might not be the sort of author you'd expect to find in the New Age section. His latest work, co-researched with his son Mischa, is his first foray into the occult. In a collection of intellectual portraits organized by astrological sign, Berlinski returns often to an ongoing debate among astrologers and their followers: Do the heavens directly influence human behavior, or just give us hints that allow us to predict it better? In other words, are the stars causes or signs?

. . .

The story of astrology goes back at least as far as the seventh century BC, when the ancient Babylonians, cursed with capricious weather and fickle rulers, developed a computational approach to astronomy that proved superior to ancient Greek methods. They "obsessively scanned the skies -- just as people in a social setting scan one another's faces -- to find out what the gods intended," writes Berlinski. Their forecasts were specific -- "If an eclipse occurs during the morning watch, a high-level official will seize the land," or "If Nergal approaches the Scorpion, there will be a breach in the palace of the Prince," for example -- but the logic behind them remains obscure.

Through the high Muslim renaissance of the 13th century, Berlinski notes, astrologers often played the political adviser, fueling intrigues and plots with strategic predictions. Meanwhile, their less fortunate colleagues worked the streets, offering all sorts of advice to passersby for a small fee. An ancient Roman astrologer might act as physician, private eye, and sexual counselor, and offer to help locate a lost object or two. Many would even inform their clients about the timing and circumstances of their deaths: The second-century seer Vettius Valens predicted that when Mars entered Cancer, a "wet" sign, one man would drown in bilge water and another would burn to death in a bath.

From the beginning, astronomy and astrology were intertwined. Ptolemy -- the Alexandrian astronomer whose geocentric model of the universe reigned for 15 centuries -- also wrote the "Tetrabiblos," a foundational astrological handbook still in use today. He saw the two disciplines as parts of a whole: Astronomical calculations tell us where the planets and stars will be, and astrological inferences tell us how their positions will affect human fortunes. Although a theorist at heart, Ptolemy did offer some disturbingly concrete predictions: Children born under an animal sign when Mars and Saturn are centered, for example, "will not even belong to the human race."

In exchange for the raw data they needed, astrologers often helped astronomers through tough financial times. And plenty of astronomers great and small remained solvent by drawing up charts and interpreting them for hire. German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who helped pioneer the notion that the earth was in revolution around the sun, was known for the accuracy of the forecasts in his almanac. According to Berlinski, Kepler was also a "skeptical but passionate astrologer" who dismissed the zodiac and the system of houses, but insisted that the celestial alignment at the moment of birth could affect individual human affairs by means of "rays falling to the earth."

Over the years, Kepler stubbornly tried to bring a measure of geometrical rigor to astrology. In his "Mysterium Cosmographicum" (1596), Kepler matched each planet's orbit with a solid: Saturn occupying the cube, for example, Mars the dodecahedron, Mercury the octahedron, and so on. He then mined this geometrical scheme for astrological insight, claiming that planets with few faces are calm and steady, while planets with triangular faces are united with one another in friendship. Berlinski believes that Newton's later conception of planetary motion centered on the sun, underwritten by an elegant mathematical description of the unseen force of gravity, may owe something to Kepler's phantom solids. (Perhaps Kepler's theory is appropriate for a scientist who, when he cast his own horoscope as a young man, found Mercury in the seventh house, a sure sign of playfulness.)

Owen Gingerich, research professor of astronomy and history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, describes Kepler as "the astrologer who killed astrology." Rising faith in mathematical physics was bad news for all kinds of divination. In 1680, London was thronged with astrologers whose sumptuous banquets Berlinski recounts with relish. By 1720 they were all but forced out of business by a big new idea -- that the universe was nothing but an enormous machine running according to impersonal laws.

But astrology has survived into the 20th century, Berlinski writes, and not just in the fortune teller's parlor and the supermarket magazine racks. Indeed, some have attempted to validate ancient celestial wisdom with contemporary methods. Starting in 1955, French statistician Michel Gauquelin announced there was a linkage between the planetary signs and individuals' choice of profession. An avid tennis player, Gauquelin spent decades trying to show that sports champions are more likely to be born when Mars is ascendant -- in one study he charted 16,756 people who were born in around the same time and place as 303 star athletes. The so-called "Mars effect" was undeniable but quite weak. Gauquelin took his own life in 1991, his many skeptics unconvinced.

. . .

Berlinski calls today's pop horoscopes "sheer nonsense." But he sees traces of the ancient astrological advisers in present-day figures such as the pollster, the therapist, the market analyst -- and especially the molecular biologist. While biologists have given a convincing account of how DNA makes proteins, he argued recently in The Weekly Standard, they are guilty of "magical thinking" when they presume to explain a living organism and its actions in terms of genes, which may have about as much to do with human behavior as the celestial houses. (Berlinski has recently cast a skeptical eye on Darwinism as well, arguing that natural selection may not be able to explain the intricacies of the mammalian eye, for example.) Like the astrologers, the biologists believe that human destiny is "under the control of a system of inaccessible objects that exert influence in ways we do not understand," he says. Is this not a form of superstition?

Berkeley neurobiology professor and Nobel laureate Donald Glaser counters that serious molecular biologists do not reduce behavior to the influence of genes. They also consider the importance of growth in the womb, learning, random fluctuations, and other factors. "We're working on it, but know we don't understand it," he says. Glaser sharply distinguishes astrologers from biologists: Unlike star-charters, Glaser says, scientists must discard hypotheses whose predictions fail.

But for Berlinski, it's the very idea of knowing the future that raises difficulties. On the one hand, if we accept a Newtonian world that can be explained by mathematical physics, we are locked into a universe where effects follow inexorably on causes, and, in exchange for unlimited powers of accurate prediction, we ultimately relinquish our free will. On the other hand, if we assume people with perfect information about the present make free choices on the basis of that information, the future becomes a "random walk" -- like price fluctuations in the stock market -- and essentially unpredictable.

In other words: Look up, and the vast law-abiding cosmos seems transparent but rather chilly; look around, and the bustling marketplace seems warm but all too hazy.

Luckily for the horoscope-writers, though, the art of prediction is in no danger of dying out. "The wish to believe that the future can be foretold is as strong and as ineradicable as the wish to believe that love will last," says Berlinski. "And probably about as well-based."

About November 2003

This page contains all entries posted to Jascha Hoffman in November 2003. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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