ASTROLOGY & ASTRONOMY part 1 of 3 : Historical Disconnect and the Tropical Zodiac

Quick, what's your sign?  BZZZZT! You're wrong.

That is if you are thinking that your Astrological sign is in anyway related to where the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars actually were in the heavens on the date and time of your birth.

Like a lot of people I have always been vaguely interested in Astrology, my special sign and what it says about my personality, who I should date, what career paths I should follow, etc. And I have clear memories of a period during child/young adulthood when I would read the newspaper at breakfast for the daily dose of comics and horoscopes.  That is who I was at twelve years old. I liked Calvin & Hobbes and I was a Libra.

Through my foray into amateur astronomy and astrophotography in recent years I have become increasingly acquainted with the night sky and the choreography of it's players in their respective seasons.  I have also, as per my general personality and intellectual persuasions, made it my business to engage in the larger discussions of the history and philosophy of science, skepticism, "proto" vs. pseudo science, and science communication/outreach in general.  Lately, a few books, podcasts, and articles that I have consumed on these and other subjects have generated a sort of dwell point around which many of my thoughts have been swirling, namely the Copernican and Scientific revolutions and the emergence of Astronomy from the general intellectual milieu of 17th and 18th centuries.Coming from the arts and humanities side of the aisle as I do, and harboring fascinations with extant religious and philosophical traditions, the historical schism between Astronomy and Astrology and the trappings of present day criticism and debate of the subject on both sides has become a messy delight for my mind.  i couldn't imagine a more perfect subject this blog and from here on out I will be attempting to rescue some of the more subtle and disparate discussion points often too quickly burnt up by heated and often intentionally divisive debate.

Now you might not care.  You might be a staunch materialist and have made up your mind about such "nonsense" and "rubbish" or you may conversely be a true believer and know in your heart of hearts the intricate details of your special relationship to the Cosmos and precisely where you fit inside the whole mess. Most of us I assume fall at different points along the spectrum and sneer derisively at those on the other side of the halfway mark.  But, in the interest of intellectual integrity and thoroughness I think it prudent to take a good long look at all the ins and outs of this issue to better understand for ourselves why it is that we believe what we believe.  What draws us almost instinctively to see magic and fatedness, a "plottedness" even in the patterns of the night sky? What good, if any, does a belief or even the slightest interest in Astrology accomplish in our daily lives?  Why is it important to develop tools and methods that force us to face uncomfortable truths about the the ways we think?  What sorts of insights follow from such exercises?  And in the aftermath, what then is there to do?

In the Beginning...

Western Astrology (which is what I will be focusing on in this post) traces it's roots back to the 2nd or 3rd millennium BCE in and around Mesopotamia.  It emerged as part of a whole class of intellectual and pseudo intellectual efforts of early civilizations trying to understand and align technology and practice with patterns in the natural world in order to establish control over a seemingly chaotic reality. These efforts include weather prediction, medical prognostication, calendar making, using burial mounds to demarcate the heliacal risings and settings of the Sun, Moon, and certain bright wandering stars (later to be recognized as planets), "reading" animal guts, and so on and so forth.

Many factors began to converge to set up these human groups to formulate a system like Astrology.  Right from the onset, there was a strong correlation between predicting the movements in the heavens and predicting events in the human realm. Human psychology, especially in the absence of skeptical tools and culture, is primed to recognize patterns and to project internal mental states to the external material world.  Where Theory of Mind and pattern recognition encourages children to begin to anticipate phenomena in the world and see from other people's perspectives, it is also a vector (without making any value judgments) for things like animism, alchemy, quantum consciousness, positive thinking, prayer, the power of intention, and all manner of cognitive biases.  And so, what was for tens of thousands of years more or less a night at the movies for preliterate cultures, began to emerge as an internally consistent body of practical storytelling about the night sky that projected human narratives upon the celestial realm.

It was recognized that the Sun, Moon, and wandering stars (planets) traveled across the sky along a proscribed path, the ecliptic.  In the Northern latitudes like Babylon or modern day Iraq where this was all being studied and codified, the ecliptic follows East to West across the Southern portion of the sky.  Astronomers have since then come to understand that this is because all of the planets in our solar system orbit the Sun on a flat-ish plane and the Earth sits on that plane tilted on it's axis at an angle of 23.4º.

From our perspective on Earth we look out at the night sky and see patterns in the fixed stars - most of you probably know Orion's belt, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades or "Seven Sisters".  Over time as people told stories about those patterns they morphed into asterisms (the recognizable shapes and figures) that make up the main features in each constellation (the bounded/segmented areas).  There are now some 88 agreed upon constellations, but the handful that most of us know the names of come to us through Astrology and these are the twelve that serve as the backdrop to the Sun's path through the sky, the sidereal zodiac, or the ecliptic mentioned above.  These are the twelve signs of the Zodiac (Cancer, Sagittarius, Virgo, Taurus, etc.)

Shifting Signs

So that is all pretty straight forward and easy to grok, right?  This whole time we have been talking about observational patterns reflecting changes in the actual sky and the stories behind them, but this is where it all starts to slide.  Enter the Tropical Zodiac.  Remember that 23.4º axial tilt of the Earth in relation to the plane of the Solar System?  Well in addition to this tilt the Earth also sports a slight wobble (like a spinning top) which revolves once every 26,000 years (approximately).  So during this time period true north and thus the North Star (now, Polaris) would trace a circle in the sky against the fixed stars that rotate around it nightly which create circular star trails revealed by long exposure photography.

This is called the Precession of the Equinox and the ancient Astrologers had no knowledge of it until it's discovery by the Hellenistic Greek astronomer Hipparchus.


The Tropical Zodiac is based on the position of the Vernal Equinox and thus drifts from the Sidereal Zodiac, the actual movements of the fixed stars, by way of the Precessions of the Equinox at a rate of about 1.4 arc degrees per century.  BLAH BLAH BLAH what does it all mean?  This means that most of Western Astrology is based on the night sky as it appeared over 2000 years ago, frozen, static, unchanging and unhinged to the dynamic complex reality that we actually exist in as discovered and elucidated by the modern practice of Astronomy.

Furthermore, the Babylonians dissected the night sky into 30º segments that stand for the representational segments of the constellations.  So what?  Well so what is that the constellations are all not the same size and therefore do not occupy the same amount of space in the 30º segments.  The horoscope provides about 30 days for each sign that start on about the 20th of each month and end on the 20th of the next.  So you would assume that the Sun would spend about 30 days "in" each sign or constellation, right?  Not even close.  In reality, the Sun spends 45 days in Virgo, 38 days in Pisces, and only 7 days in Scorpius.

And what is the result?  According to Astronomy magazine there is about a 7 to 1 chance that on the day of your birth the Sun was not actually in the constellation that Astrology dictates and some initial testing seems to bear this out.  This is actually a pretty fun exercise: I have a planetarium app (Go Skywatch) for my smartphone that can roll the sky back to the year 1 CE or forward to the year 4000 CE and you get an accurate 360º interactive map of the day or night sky with the positions of all the planets, the Moon, and Sun along the ecliptic.  I spent the better part of a day on Facebook taking requests for friends to see what was up on their birthdays and what sign they would be according to Astronomy, or the Sidereal Zodiac.  Most were off by a sign in either direction and I learned that on my birthday, October 11, 1980 the Sun was in fact in Virgo, not Libra.  It was a fun day on Facebook. In addition, I also had my official natal chart plotted out on a free website and checked the position of the Moon and all the planets and most of those were out of sync as well.  Every once in a while I will check another app called Time Passages which is an Astrology app that follows the Tropical Zodiac to show the user what is happening in the sky according to Astrology so that they can plan out their personal and professional lives.  Guess what? Nothing "is" where it actually "is".

So what exactly was the relationship that Astrology is purporting to describe?  What is the mechanism for it's influence in our lives or the destiny of nations? What is it useful for?  How does this make any sense at all?  Why is it so fascinating to so many people?  How has it survived and is it willing to change to reflect reality?  What are the shortcomings of modern debate on the topic?  What does Astrology do right?

[To be continued next time when we look at Astrology's relationship to medicine and meteorology, statecraft and political destiny, free will and Christianity, Renaissance magic, Alchemy, and the scientific method.]

Photographic Gold In Lost Dutchman State Park


The Young Professional - Congress Edition

Volume 2 Issue 2 – September 2014

A Publication of the Young Professional Network of the National Recreation and Park Association

High up on my list of things to do upon moving back to my hometown in Arizona was to get outdoors, out on the trails in the mountains and attempt to recover a dimly sensed loss of adventure, space, and desolation. In LA, I had unwittingly become a city boy trapped on an island of concrete and steel, crowded in by the throngs of young professionals and sprawling populations of homeless and huddled poor that reside within the piled up boxes and mounds of blanket shanty towns that sprout from the streets at dusk.

I had to get out into the open spaces. I had to break in a new pair of second-hand boots. I had to capture through my camera lens that essence of the land and the wide-open dark skies at night that remind a person of the price of city life – a life removed from the sublime wilderness from which we have arisen only in the last few moments in the history of planet Earth.

That deep geologic time rises sharply out of the desert floor in the form of the Superstition Mountains located east of Phoenix and is one of the most recognizable natural features on the horizon. The towering monolithic slabs were formed 29 million years ago from cooled volcanic ash and magma that spewed from the Earth’s crust and now rise some 3,000 feet above the desert floor¹. A fact communicated silently in the soul of the onlooker as the bald face of the jutting rock melts in deep reds and purples at sunset.

Since 1972, Lost Dutchman State Park has provided the gateway to this gently managed wilderness nestled between the foothill neighborhoods of the city of Apache Junction and Tonto National Forest. The park’s namesake was actually one German-born Jacob Waltz who partnered with a descendent of the Peralta family that originally developed a few prosperous gold mines there in the 1840s and who were subsequently ambushed and killed by Apache Indians ² – according to legend of course. The location of the mines and caches of gold were lost to history and to this day adventurous folk still trek the range among ancient cliff dwelling and petroglyphs in search of his fortune.

Over the next few months of visiting the park I built up my photography portfolio, sought out solitude, and on clear nights waited for darkness to practice my burgeoning obsession with amateur astronomy and astrophotography. In the Spring, recently in town from her globe trotting adventures, a friend and professional photographer chatted with me over some beers about shoots we might plan in the future and when I casually showed her an image I took of the full Moon rising over the Superstitions all soaked in purple dusklight, she got inspired. “I have a few more shots for my photo book that I need to get,” she said. “I’ll postpone driving back to LA for another day…let’s go be art nerds out in the desert!”

Paused Along the Treasure Loop Trail The next night with our combined camera gear, my telescope, and a couple of her friends we caravanned out to the park before sunset to hike about on the Treasure Loop Trail and image some of that late afternoon luster. As the dark crept in and the distant lights of Phoenix lit up the valley below, the desert nightlife began to sound out and we in turn hooted and hollered down the trail making our way to the parking lot where I rambled on about astronomy and set up my telescope.

Though the skies were free from excessive light pollution, scattered clouds eventually rolled in and blocked most of the stars and Deep Space Objects, but not before I was able to share a close up sight of Saturn and its rings traversing speedily across the field of view of the eyepiece. The girls squealed in delight while trying to snap iPhone photos and must have sounded like a pack of coyotes to any distant park ranger making their rounds. At least that is how I have begun to reassure myself on subsequent trips.

At night, camped outside the park after hours taking multiple long exposure photographs for those iconic star trails images, as the dark night’s silence is pierced by the cries of roving packs of carnivores I just try to imagine pretty girls over-excited about astronomy. Owls hoot, I sip my coffee and try to remain relaxed while my camera shutter clicks away in the darkness.

I suppose folks must be looking in the wrong places because I seem to find a little gold in those hills each time I visit.

Praying Hands


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POWER MOVES: Mars NASA Social // $50,000 Nat Geo Contest

Well, it seems that I am making some progress in my attempt to sneak in under the tent as a science writer/photographer/outreacher/visual culture of Astronomy-whathaveyou-somethingerother.  And so accordingly, I would like to take some space to inform and reflect upon some new projects recently completed and currently in the works. I recently connected with an assistant professor of Recreation and Park Administration at Eastern Kentucky University who edits a bi-annual national newsletter for the State Park system of the United States.   He reached out on Reddit for writers looking to get some exposure and promote their local state park and so I shot him a link of this blog and my Instagram page (accessible on the sidebar ---->) and pitched him an idea that was well received.  I wrote up a quick narrative about hiking in and around the Superstition Mountains Wilderness and the Lost Dutchman State Park, photographic experiments with the Moon illusion touched on in my last post, star trails, and showing some friends Saturn for the first time through my 8" Dobsonian telescope.  They are currently finishing editing and I should be able to share that story + photos fairly soon.

Paused Along the Treasure Loop Trail


Next weekend I will be flying to Denver, CO to attend the NASA Social event MAVEN Arrives at Mars where 25 social media space enthusiasts will be given press credentials and taken on a tour of the 1) the University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics and 2) Lockheed Martin's Autonomous Systems facility in Littleton, CO.  The MAVEN spacecraft launched some 10 months ago and on Sunday will perform an orbital insertion maneuver around the red planet in order to carry out its designed mission to study just how and why Mars lost its atmosphere and how that affected the Martian climate, which may have at some point in the past been able to sustain life.  Expect lots of Twitter, FB, and Instagram posts, some cool stories, sweet photos, and a few slick hyperlapse (motion stabilized time-lapse) videos.


And now for the Big Whoop.

A couple months ago, almost in passing, my father mentioned to me that National Geographic was hosting a contest for a $50,000 grant to fund a "dream expedition".  I thought it sounded cool enough to research, but really didn't have an idea of what I could do with it.  Then one night I was out shooting startrails over the Superstition Mountains for the article on state parks detailed above.  I was with a friend who often joins me on late night shoots and I was describing a new method of depicting Milky Way timelapse videos that I happened upon by accident.  We continued brainstorming how I might accomplish the task, which would require significant amounts of travel around the whole globe when the topic of conversation shifted and I ended up relaying the details of this NatGeo contest and lamenting on my lack of inspiration.

He said, "Do that!"

"Do what?" I inquired.  "Do what you were just talking about, and use the contest to fund it."  Oh dang, I thought, that's not a bad idea.  A seed had been planted.  I started to roll the idea over in my mind for a week or so until it morphed and spread out to include all the different visits, projects, meetings, images, videos, trips, places, and people that I have been wanting to work with since getting involved with all this amateur astronomy and astrophotography stuff.  Community star parties, National Parks Dark Sky team and their artists-in-residence program, podcasters, publishers, outreach coordinators, the G+ Virtual Star Party crew, Bill Nye, 3D videographers, and not to mention all of my artistic friends. I started to see how this could turn into a whole big road trip with amazing collaborations ending possibly in an epic documentary or TV miniseries leaving a wake of art projects, community events, lesson plans for student groups, memories, and unintended consequences along the way.

I put my project proposal together over the span of two weeks with the enormous support and help of family and friends.  The resulting video cost me heaps of stress, anguish, and existential dread.  Check it out!

Are We Losing the Night?


I still have to wait until the 16th of September to find out whether or not I am a finalist, but I am already sharing it around as if I were.  I'm reaching out to the International Dark Sky Association, The Universe Today, CosmoQuest, maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joe Rogan, Astronomers W/O Borders, and all my artist friends.  If I am selected then the next two weeks will be an all out social media blitz to solicit as many public votes as possible. I will be sending out reminders, because I know how busy your lives are.  Everybody can vote ONCE A DAY for one week - most public votes wins.  Feel free to share it around in your own networks using the social media icon buttons on my project page and there is a little comment box at the bottom as well for any questions you may have about the details of my project.

I'm pretty nervous about it all.  I don't mind possibly looking foolish for not winning - what with all the self promotion that this contest requires, but this project encompasses all that drives me creatively and ideally, it would just naturally transfer over into the perfect career. Wish, hope, pray, throw the IChing, call upon the planets, direct your intentional energies, and send all your woo woo vibes out to the Universe in my favor please!