Astronomy vs Astrology

There are just a couple of things you’ve got to love about being an astronomer.  My students always advertised that viewing at a star party was “live entertainment” that was free of charge to those who were passing by.  One of the more entertaining things I ever encountered was a gentleman who stopped to observe at our Fort Greene location.  He was trying to convince my students that the Earth was flat.  While my students set him straight, I was thinking about the next worst possible scenario – those who confuse astronomy with astrology.  We’ve all encountered them, just like those who tell us that they are veterinarians because they don’t eat meat.  At least they got the letters “v” and “e” right.

Being that it is now August, I get a little anxious about the upcoming school year and how my birthday in July approximately marks the midpoint of my glorious 59 day long summer vacation.  However, along with my birthday comes just a touch of guilt as I take a peek at my horoscope in the newspaper.  The generic information that is completely meaningless just makes me turn to read more important things, like the sports section.  However, reading my horoscope brings be back to the original Cosmos series that aired on PBS.  Carl Sagan, who I remember vividly watching as a child, absolutely attacked astrology mercilessly and gave a good reason as to why it is pseudoscience, and yet, why it is important to humans.

Carl Sagan’s third episode was titled, “Harmony of the Worlds” and to much delight it started with the Pleiades and Crab Nebula and how astrologers tied them to the constellation Taurus.  Later in the episode, overlooking Rockefeller Center in our busy city, Sagan points out a few flaws with astrology such as,

  • Astrology was “fuzzy thinking and pious fraud”.
  • Two different newspapers can have different horoscopes for the same sign on the same day in the same city.
  • The horoscopes in the newspapers are vague and they tell you what to do, as opposed to what is going to happen.
  • Two twins born within minutes of each other can still have fates that are very much different.
  • How can the light or gravitational pull of a planet influence someone at birth when the delivery room is cut off from outside light and the doctor has a bigger gravitational pull on the baby than does the planet in question?

I love showing this portion of the episode to my class and keeping a tally of how many times Sagan rips into astrology.  I also love that there is something else we can take away from his words: “The desire to be connected with the cosmos reflects a profound reality.  We are connected…in the deepest ways.”  This can be shown in how the Sun sustains us with energy or how the Moon can impact the tides. You can research on how a low tide made the Boston Tea Party a complete failure.  We are always connected to the cosmos because the Laws of Nature govern what happens around us.

So, while I resist reading my horoscope for another 364-ish days, I guess I want what astrologers and horoscope readers want: that connection to the cosmos.  Why else would we spend countless nights under the stars doing what we do?