January 22, 2021
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Astrology: An Abuse Of Astronomy

The starry-eyed addicts of daily-horoscopes might take it lightly, but the UGC policy of introducing astrology as a subject could do with an informed perspective.

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Astrology: An Abuse Of Astronomy
Collage by Gopinath S
Astrology: An Abuse Of Astronomy

In recent times the controversy over the nature of astrology, whether it is a scientific theory or not, seems to be becoming more and more acerbic. While the astrologers are freely indulging in making personal attacks on scientists, the following pertinent criticism of the theory and practice of astrology, is not in any way being answered by them.

To be called a scientific theory, any body of knowledge would have to answer the question why at every level. Put another way, there has to be some fundamental interaction of basic elements of nature involved at the root of any phenomenon. Venus in some position has a baneful influence, Jupiter in some other position is beneficial, born at such and such time a person may grow up to be a criminal or a politician – WHY? What is the basic cause behind such statements?

When asked to pin down the fundamental interaction of the planets and stars with us human beings which would give rise to such effects, astrologers falter and mumble something about gravitation, electromagnetic radiation or tidal effects.

Gravitation? The gravitational forces of the nursing home, gynecologist, pediatrician and the anesthetist who may be around at the time of birth of a human baby would be far greater than any gravitational force felt from the planets, simply because they are so far away! Similarly, stray electromagnetic radiations coming from your TV screen or sundry other electrical appliances around the house will be far greater than any that reaches us from distant planets, how can the latter affect incidences in your life?

What say we of tides? A statement on an astrological website goes – ‘If the Sun and Moon can exert tidal forces on Earth, which is so huge, to cause tides, can they not exert enormous tidal forces on us puny beings?’ … something like that. The suggestion being that we do not know what forces could be the cause astrological influences, but maybe tides have the answer for us?

The point here is that the tidal forces on Earth, by the Sun and Moon are caused precisely because it is so huge.

Where do tidal forces originate from? It is not a new or different kind of force – it simply arises from differences in gravitational force felt by the extremities of an extended object – the gravitational force of the Sun or the Moon is larger on that part of Earth that is facing them and smaller on the opposite side. As simple as that. Now try imagining differences in gravitational forces of the distant planets between the tummy and the behind of a baby just born or maybe the head and the toes? Laughable. Tides do not have the answer that astrologers need.

It is true that there are number of physical interactions that have not yet been fully understood from a very basic standpoint – the nature of the nuclear forces, for instance. At the level of complex interactions and chaotic phenomena there are a number of examples where a full scientific understanding and predictability through underlying physical laws is as yet incomplete. All these are rich areas in science where a lot of progress has taken place and there exists room for a lot more work.

However, at some level or the other these unsolved problems touch upon known and experimentally verified nature’s laws. It is this that is lacking in astrology. The astrologers say – so what if we cannot predict the future very accurately, are scientists able to predict the weather or Earthquakes accurately? The difference here comes in our basic understanding of these phenomena, scientists have plenty of experimental verification for the basic interactions they think underlie weather or Earthquakes or any such phenomenon that is not yet understood in its full complexity. Does astrology have any such basic grounding? No!

So, we do not have a fundamental interaction or force that could explain benign or malignant influences of the planets on our life. But, may be, the cancer of astrology has a way out … empirical evidence? Lacking a fundamental understanding of certain natural phenomenon, we may yet find out some partial truth about it by experimentally studying various aspects of it.

Most of the astrological predictions are worded in a deliberately vague manner. It is this inherent vagueness that turns out to be the biggest strength of astrologers since it defies experimental verification, a basic requirement for any science.

Anyway, let us try our hands at generating statistics to critically examine astrological conclusions. Positions of planets, Sun and the Moon against the backdrop of the Zodiacal constellations at the time of the birth of a person is supposed to determine their destiny, right? Listed below are the birthdates of a number of Nobel Laureates who have received the peace prize. Astrologically speaking, we should expect to see some correlation in the planetary positions on these dates, which we do not see:

Positions of Sun, Moon and Planets among the Zodiacal constellations during the birth dates of some Nobel Laureates for Peace.

This exercise can be endless. Try it for any such list of people and you are sure to see that no patterns exist in the planetary positions, if the birthdates are unbiased.

(By the way, it is a a very simple matter to find out the planetary positions for dates in history. There exist a number of planetarium software, made freely available by dedicated astronomers and educators, which do this job for you. There is a wonderful shareware called skyglobe, produced by KlassM Software, a demo version of which can be downloaded.

Using such software, you can look at the planetary, or stellar, positions in the sky in history, as well as a few thousand years in future. All this is astronomy, or rather, celestial mechanics, nothing to do with astrology.

Anyway, trying to look at possible patterns emerging during birth-dates of famous people could be an interesting senior school statistics project to do and could quickly demonstrate the falsehood of astrology. Students who may be thinking of enrolling for astrological courses, particularly, may do well to look at such simple statistics before making a tricky career decision.

Several astrologers make claims that they have predicted events that have happened. Lets' go through a sample - several astrologers are thumping their chests saying that they had predicted the Gujarat quake – what have these predictions been?

Take a sample – ‘The nation may face a national calamity in the first weeks of January’, ‘Inspite of many security arrangements the government may be taken by surprise on the republic day’, and so on. These are statements taken from claims being made on the net by astrologers saying that they had predicted the quake.

If the quake had not taken place, these predictions, however vague, would never have been seen in limelight again, the case with innumerable other predictions these same astrologers would be making day in and day out, and which do not come out as predicted.

And then again, the predictions themselves are so vague, as can be seen from the motley sample above, that a person needs to be completely shameless to make such tall claims after the event – making moolah out of vague statements and large scale real suffering of people!

Is the harm not obvious? False alarms leading to stampedes in the quake torn towns and people re-building their houses with the right muhurtams and according to Vaastu Shastra rather than using mechanical engineering to make their homes quake proof.

In any case, how would astrology tell you anything about a terrestrial event – through planetary positions and Lunar phases right? Let us repeat the exercise done above for the Nobel Laureates, but, this time for the dates in the last couple of hundred years when major earthquakes have taken place in our neighbourhood. This link shows the Zodiacal constellation in which the Sun, Moon and the planets were located at the time of these earthquakes of the past and present. Included also in this table is the Lunar phase for the epicenter and date of the earthquake.

It is abundantly clear from this table, that no pattern exists in planetary positions on the dates of earthquakes in India’s recent history. The same will hold true of global earthquakes as well as for quakes in any other region.

A way out is thought by some astrologers faced with such clinching evidence against them, when they say, no two events above are centred at the same place. But, surely, something in the planetary positions should be common to indicate the event of an earthquake? Also, there are three events centred in Gujrat and the planetary positions are seen to be wildly different for these.

There have been some claims also of a correlation of the lunar phase with the occurrences of earthquakes. Lunar phase? True, the tides are correlated with these. Tidal forces, as discussed, arise from the difference in gravitational force on the extremities of an extended object. Gravitational force on the side facing the Sun or the Moon being greater than on the opposite side. This will of course be affected by the Lunar phases, or the relative positions of the Sun and the Moon with respect to Earth. However, earthquakes are to do with movement of neighboring tectonic plates, tidal force differences for which would be negligible.

It seems unlikely that earthquakes should be correlated with Lunar phases. A better clincher comes from the data. One can see the lunar phase on the dates of the earthquakes listed in the table above and it is abundantly clear that the phase distribution here is quite random, with no underlying pattern.

Let's go back in time. A story floating around refers to an astrological prediction of Bhaskara that his daughter would become a widow and its happening exactly so! Now, at this period of time, since we do not have record to tell us the exact times of Bhaskara to better than a century or two, where do we find records to verify the truth of this story? Is it not quite likely to be a legend perpetuated by astrologers to better their claims?

Following the style of typical astrological predictions, let's say, a statement made at birth of Leelavati that she would undergo a lot of suffering (which Indian woman does not?) may have been taken to mean this event after it happened. If the event did not take place, a difficult childbirth may have been sufficient to meet the case.

The point being made is, one vague statement and a later event which in a roundabout manner may be interpreted as a vindication do not constitute a scientific proof of a theory. Correlations are notorious for showing up patterns out of random data.

One would have to go far deeper into statistical analysis before any trace patterns that may be seen in planetary positions and human destinies can be used as evidence. In addition, there do not seem to be studies done with any unbiased data that do show any such correlations.

As for the predictions by all the astrologers that may have been made these few thousand years and their vindication – what price precession of the axis of Earth’s rotation?

Our home planet goes through a variety of interesting motions – it spins on its own axis, moves along an elliptical orbit around the Sun, and participates willy nilly in all the movements associated with the Solar system as a whole. In addition, its spin axis wobbles around like a top completing one precession cycle in about 26,000 years.

At the time that the astrological concepts may have been crystallized these concepts were certainly not known or rationalized. But, yes, precession did trouble astronomers and astrologers alike every few hundred years or so. Everytime the calculated positions of planets failed to agree with the observed positions, corrections based on empirical observations were made which held through for a few hundred years till the corrections were needed yet again.

The corrections were done by Aryabhata, several astronomers in the centuries following applied further corrections to Aryabhata’s work all the way till late medieval and modern times when these were done by Swai Jaisingh and Samanta Chandrasekhar.

It is only later that all these corrections have been rationalized with the precession of Earth’s axis of rotation. That has been progress in astronomical understanding. Astronomers would have no problem in acknowledging that this phenomenon was not understood earlier and it is only now that we are able to predict with good accuracy the positions of planets which will hold good well beyond a few centuries.

Through all these times what has the astrological updating been? Between 2000 BC to 1000 BC, for instance, the Sun was seen in the Zodiacal constellation of Sagittarius during the time of a year that we now refer to as last weeks of November and the first two weeks of December. This Zodiacal sign was assigned to these times of the year, presumably, somewhere around this time. The same story holds of course, for all other Zodiacal signs, Sagittarius was used only as an illustrative example.

Currently, at these times of the year the Sun is in the constellation Scorpio and almost moving over to Libra. So people born at these times of the year, who consider themselves as Sagittarians should actually be a cross between Scorpios and Libras. Is this fact being taken into account by astrological predictions? Not taking it into account should not matter, since the whole foundation of astrology is shaky anyway.

Some astrologers do come up and say, oh yes, we do take care of precession alright. There exists in the net world ample astronomical software that tell you the positions of the stars and planets today, a few thousand years back and a few thousand years hence. These software have been made by dedicated astronomers and provided freely for those wishing to use it for popularization of astronomy. These software have now been appropriated by astrologers who are able to say, they have accurate positions of planets and stars taking precession into account. Now whose astrological predictions are correct – what have been made these thousand years or more, without taking precession into account or that of a few savvy astrologers who are making use of these readily available software to obtain the correct positions only in these last few recent years?

If we do accept the basic premise of astrology, then it has to be these savvy few who are right – then where does ancient wisdom of astrology come in? One only needs to go through the predictions made by these few and it should be a very small matter to show that these predictions do not hold up to mathematical rigour.

Another danger is being overlooked here. By harping on the authenticity of certain ancient notions as the absolute truths, we are detracting from the real achievements of these ancient observers.

The Vedas seem to be a celebration of life and the elements of nature. The vedic people, apparently, needed to know the positions of planets against the background of distant stars, because they believed these positions denoted certain times as auspicious or otherwise for the performing of sacrifices. We are able to accept that the performing of sacrifices might not be quite the thing … why can we not accept that they may have been wrong in other thoughts too?

Inspite of having certain wrong notions, the history of that period is rich with many an advanced, real, contribution to the progress of human civilization. One of these has been long and patient observations of the sky and attempts to fit the observations to a mathematical pattern. The pattern shifts with precession and this was not incorporated. But, it was no mean achievement to have obtained the pattern to this level!

Not only that, the concept of Ayanamsa as a measure of precession of the Equinoxes, was something which was observed, worried over, and observational means of calculating and correcting for it were done by many Indian astronomers – notably, Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Nilakantha, Bhaskara, Trivikrama, Vatesvara, Jagannatha and Parameswara among others. This was a real achievement of the Indian Astronomers.

True, the Ayanamsa calculation was always done for that period to make their predictions of planetary motions agree with observations. The true rate of precession and its complete rationalization was not achieved in order that centuries later the same mismatch need not have troubled scrupulous astronomers like Jai Singh and Samanta Chandrasekhar.

All of this can be seen as the progress of the science of astronomy in India through the centuries, a progress far ahead of many of its contemporaries elsewhere.

Superstition and orthodoxy, which have always been present simultaneously with progressive thinking, had prevented these advances from achieving far greater progress in their times.

If we do not deify and proclaim from roof tops that Vedas contain everything from cosmology to the human genome project, then a level-headed look at the real achievements of our ancients would become feasible.

Let us not wash away these unique signals from history in a lot of false notions and obscurantism.

The author is a director with Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi

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