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Astronomy and astrology today
- A Note for Parents and Children

One night Sam and some friends were having a sleep-over at Thomas’s house. Sam had told them that Mars and Saturn were very close together and both at their brightest, and they were all very excited about this, they had never seen this before. Just before going to bed Sam started to take them into the garden to look at the sky - he explained to Thomas’s Mum that Mars and Saturn were in Gemini and they had had to wait for it to rise. She got very cross with him: astrology was dangerous nonsense and she was not having Sam telling her Thomas about it. Naturally Sam was very upset and it took me a time to sort things out.

Words ending in -ology usually come from a Greek word meaning the study of, for example

So people who study the stars should really be called astrologers, and until about 1600 CE they often were. The problem is that in today’s world astrology has come to mean something completely different.

The rotation of the Earth on its axis, and of the Moon round the Earth, and of the Earth round the Sun, all mean that seen from the Earth the Sun and Moon appear to be moving through the sky against the background of the stars. These movements give us day and night, the seasons, the tides, our weather patterns, in fact everything which makes life on this planet possible.

All life upon Earth depends upon the rhythms of the Sun and Moon in ways which we are still learning about today and which are as important today as they have ever been, so Wise Men were important to Kings and Rulers, and still are.

For example, everybody knows that the Sun and Moon affect the tides, that is, the way in which the water behaves in the oceans. But not everybody knows that they also affect the way in which the water behaves in the soil, and so the best time in the lunar cycle to plant different sorts of seeds.

Sam is very interested in this at the moment because all the children at his school have been told that next year the school hours will be changing. Today’s scientists have found a special circadian (from the Latin for about a day) “clock” in our bodies (and in many other animals and even plants and fungi) which controls our sleep and learning patterns and lots of other things. It does not keep perfect time, any more than an old-fashioned wind-up clock keeps perfect time, but, in the same way that the clock in your iPad checks itself every time you are connected to the internet your circadian clock checks itself every time you spend a few minutes out of doors - it actually checks the changes in the colour of the Sunlight as the Sun moves across the sky. It also receives what we might call regular “software updates” - scientists have discovered that teenage children really do learn better if they start school later than younger children.

Four thousand years ago our ancestors could see Mercury and Venus and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn moving across the sky in the same way as the Sun and Moon, and it was not a big step for them to come to believe that these movements could also affect their lives. Today we might say that they were mistaken but the Night Sky in all its glory was something which everyone in the world saw every night of the year and was so much a part of their lives that I do not think that we can say that they were stupid. So what we now call astrology, foretelling the future from the position of these moving stars (what we now call the planets), was born.

Much of the “evidence”on which astrology was originally based was probably what we call anecdotal, that is, based upon something that happened to you or someone you know rather than the result of proper research. Here is a modern version.

Sam has lots of uncles and aunts and cousins - his youngest cousin Jake’s birthday is on November 5th (people not living in England might not understand the significance of this date). This year Jake is five and his birthday is on a Saturday so almost the whole family are able to come to the party. Most of the neighbours are coming too, including Mahika and her family - Mahika is three days older than Jake and he had been to her party earlier in the week. Jake is telling Sam “When it’s your fifth birthday you have a special party with a bonfire and fireworks unless you are a Hindu.”

He is not being naughty and making up a fib, he is just drawing a conclusion from insufficient evidence. Even Sam and his friends are old enough to know that in the 21st century many stories circulating on social media are based upon just as little evidence.

The Greeks, who were by far the greatest of the ancient astronomers, despised astrologers and totally rejected astrology as a means of foretelling the future, but the Babylonians and Romans took it (and in fact many other ways of foretelling the future) very seriously indeed and wrote lots of books about it, and today’s astrologers are still referring to these books, using the positions that the Sun and Moon and planets were in at the time that they were originally written: they claim that they are the inheritors and guardians of Ancient Wisdom.

I have a great deal of respect for a shepherd living three thousand years ago who had actually watched Mars and Saturn move into Gemini and wondered what it foretold, but none whatever for a senior accountant living today who has never looked at the Night Sky in his life, and could not tell Mars from Betelgeuse or Saturn from Sirius or Gemini from Orion even if he did, but still believes that it matters.

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© Barry Gray August 2020