Astrology is the single most influential pseudoscience in UNI human history. Its influence is everywhere, from the ancient pyramids of Egypt to the plays of Shakespeare to Ronald Reagan’s White House. Across the globe, millions of people who consider themselves immune to superstition wouldn’t think of starting their day without consulting a newspaper or online horoscope. Battles have been won and lost and children have been conceived based on the alignment of the stars, and in modern-day India, wedding planners complain that too many nuptials are scheduled for a small number of days—those identified as auspicious by the heavens. Yet mainstream scientists , without exception, say astrology is utterly bogus, and even its proponents struggle to explain how the position of celestial bodies at our birth could possibly influence our personalities, much less our destinies. Yet who among us has not consulted a horoscope, only to find that our character traits reflect precisely the qualities put forth by astrologers: tidy Virgo, bull-headed Taurus, sexy Scorpio, unpredictable Gemini. The notion that our fate may be tangled up in the stars is present in almost all human cultures and dates from mankind’s earliest days: the pyramids, chamber tombs and ancient megaliths of ancient history were built to align with the heavens. Yet as science has replaced superstition in man’s affairs, astrology’s influence has, so to speak, entered retrograde. In its first manifestation, men believed the stars and planets played a direct role in human affairs, and the first astrologers were priest-magicians of enormous power. By the Middle Ages, astrologers no longer believed the stars controlled our destinies but thought signs and portents involving human affairs could be read in the heavens. Today, the powers claimed for astrolog are much diminished, and the discipline is valued by most of its users for the insights it is believed to offer into personality types. Yet astrology made a vital contribution to the history of science, for it led directly to the serious study of astronomy. A number of Renaissance astrologers—Tycho Brahe, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler—became pioneering astronomers; their desire to penetrate the gauze of the heavens helped advance our knowledge of outer space in revolutionary ways. Weather too was long thought to be dictated by stars, meteors and planets, and when today’s fore-casters are feeling their oats, they like to be called meteorologists.
Because astrology has played so significant a role in human history, its influence is everywhere in society, language and arts, perhaps second only to that of religion. A study of astrology takes us on a whirlwind tour through human culture: Mesopotamiian star-gazers gave us the zodiac (and the three Magi, astrologer-priests who witnessed Christ’s birth); Egyptians created the idea of the horoscope; the Greeks gave us the constellations, the organizing units of European astrology, and their fanciful, evocative names. However much astrology has enriched our history, poetry and language, it is, in scientific terms, utter bunk. In a shattering 1995 attack on astrology printed in Britain’s Independent newspaper, Richard Dawkins, the British scientist and writer who is an especially avid foe of pseudoscience, recalled an anecdote about film director Otto Preminger. An enthusiast of astrology once approached the director on a movie set and inquired, “Gee, Mr. Preminger, what sign are you?” The famed grouch flashed an icy glare and replied, “I am a do-not-disturb sign.”
STAR POWER Worlds of wonder in the heavens, the constellations named by the Greeks continue to inform modern astrology. Above, the constellations of the southern hemisphere are on the left, the northern hemisphere on the right in these maps painted by Briton James Thornhill in 1725. The main picture of a distant star cluster was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope