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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Let Me Tell You About My Gear...

* Cue Wes Anderson montage scene with Mark Mothersbaugh theme music GEAR!!  I dunno maybe it's a guy thing - maybe it's just a thing.  But gear makes the hobby.

As a boy it started with baseball.  The glove was a magical extension of your body and you exercised it.  You put a ball in the web and wrapped rubber bands around break it in, you oiled it, you wore it around the house pounding your fist into it.  Your bat was your first multi-tool and you had a bucket full of spiders and baseballs of varying condition and lethality in the backyard shed.  Cleats - check.  Cap - check.  Cup - check.  Game time.

You moved on, got into music and you bought a guitar.  You had to have the cool sunburst paint job, the right strap, the right practice amp, the whammy bar, and at least one really great distortion pedal.   You experimented learning just what the perfect pick was for your personal style taking years discovering the path, the path to the perfect setup.

I went overboard when it came to skateboarding.   I had reappropriated my fishing tackle box with all its little compartments now employed in the storage of used or extra bushings, nuts, bolts, risers, washers, bearings, slightly used bearings, bearings I should throw away, casings of busted bearings stuck in old wheels, tiny wheels from the early 1990s, old trucks, my older brother's cracked trucks that I kept like a trophy, king pins, curb wax, Husker Du's, Husker Don'ts, spacers, stickers and stuffed way back underneath the bed - old cracked, snapped and "focused" (purposefully snapped in four equal pieces) skateboard decks.  And of course the stacks of VHS skate videos, dog-eared CCS catalogs, and poured over and ripped up Transworld magazines - all the various ephemera, accoutrement, and  kit and kaboodle.


And I'm not gonna even talk about $$$Sssnowboarding.

But that was all child's play, training for the real deal.  The real gear.  You see, although astrophotography has a long history of amateur involvement (first recorded astrophoto was of the moon and taken via daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre himself!) , it was mostly accomplished through dry photographic plate processes utilizing large observatory telescopes.  But throughout the 1970s-1990s with the advent of CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras, webcams, digital cameras and in combination with innovations in telescope and go-to/tracking mount technology we saw the rise of a new standing army of astrophotographers getting better and better at cheaply (relatively speaking) pulling down the heavens and stuffing them into your mindblown faces (more on the history and processes of astrophotography in a later post).

I have to give credit here to the iPhone.  That wondrous conflict-mineral laden computer/camera/phone/totem/pacifier/plaything that fits right into your pocket was instrumental in getting me hooked on the hobby.  A friend and I were out at the shore for the spring 2012 supermoon, trying as well to spy Saturn through patchy cloud cover over Long Beach and a sudden, reactionary force swooped down upon me, I thought "I'll snap a photo with my phone!" (said no one ever before this century) and within a few moments I had taken my first astrophoto:


With the flash still on like a total n00b.

All that is to say that I still really haven't broken out of the beginner stage and my gear list represents the culminated efforts of lots of research, a few Christmases, a few birthdays, and some extra hours at the office slowly allowing me to gain experience with multiple introductory methods and techniques.  I'm sure I'll make a few updated posts as I drop a few thousand doll-hairs and level up, but back to the present and my gear:

The Scope:


This is my light bucket and "she" doesn't have a name because I didn't name "her" because I don't do that crap. It's an Orion XT8 8" Dobsonian (RIP its creator, John Dobson, popularizer of 'sidewalk astronomy' who past away today 1/15/2014) Reflector (it uses a primary and secondary mirror to reflect light as opposed to a Newtonian which employs glass lenses) telescope.  This is one of the simplest telescopes you can buy and is the standard type for beginners, provided that you can haul around ~30-40 lbs. without injury.  It tilts up and down and swivels 360 degrees on it's base allowing the user full access to the heavens above with only a red dot sight (ACOG sight for you FPS gamers) mounted near the eyepiece for navigation.  This means that the scope is not computerized and you must learn your way around by 'star-hopping' through the constellations using 1) assorted astronomical facts and charts stuffed into your memory 2) star wheels 3) smartphone apps 4) big thick reference guides like Burnham's Celestial Handbook and the smaller National Audubon Society Field Guide To The Night Sky (more on books later) and one of my favorite methods 5) aimless scanning.

The Eyepieces, accessories, etc:

I use the provided 1.25" (diameter) 25mm Sirius Plossl eyepiece along with a 2x Barlow lens (effectively doubling magnification) and  I also made use of a friend's 16 and 9mm eyepieces before the move to AZ.  I plan to make the jump to wide-angle 2" eyepieces, Barlows, and filters for the increased field of view or FOV as soon as economically possible.  Solar observing and imaging is made possible by my full-aperture 8" Orion Safety Film solar filter and is an indispensable member in the arsenal, enabling  off-hours observation and imaging of sunspots and sometimes even faint filaments or other solar surface details.  I borrow binoculars for the time being, but I really want to get these snazzy image-stabilizing binos that will set me back a cool $300.  Also, absolutely necessary is a few random red, rear bike lights and especially my Energizer brand red/white headlamp (the red lights are imperative to maintaining dark adapted vision) which is always kept close.


The Imagers:

I already mentioned the iPhone.  Its a 4th generation and has nothing special about other than it being a combination phone/camera/computer that fits in my pocket and is made from minerals mined by 3rd world children.  I did make a nifty DIY mount using an old plastic smartphone case, parts from a clamp for a bike light, and a bunch of black electrician's tape.  It worked pretty well until I realized that 1) it got me no closer to doing decent long exposure iPhone photography because my long exposure app doesn't really cut the mustard (more on apps later) and 2) I could basically maintain enough steadiness with just mah two hands to accomplish what I could with a camera phone (nothing against Orion's smartphone mount, they look pretty handy).  But it was a fun exercise in making my own gear (MYOG).

iPhone mount

My DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera is a Canon Rebel EOS XSi (not yet modified for the IR filter).  Its one of the "quieter" cameras that Canon makes and is thus perfectly suited for the purposes of astrophotography as working with such faint or distant light sources ramps up the amount of "noise" of any given image.  I have two lenses that I am using right now, 1) a standard Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens, but it is outfitted with a UV filter and combination Super Wide Angle/Macro Lens made by Neewer that all screws onto the front (all items towards the medium-low cost end of the spectrum) and 2) a Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III Telephoto Zoom Lens (which is also towards the medium-low or "intro" end of the spectrum, but seems pretty durable for the price for most anything an amateur is going to get into).


A quick aside: In Optics, the f/, or F stop or Focal Ratio is the ratio of the lens's focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil (the image as 'seen' through the front of the lens system).  It is a dimensionless (without physicality) number that is a quantitative measure of lens speed.  As the f/ stop number increases, the aperture gets smaller and light gathering power decreases (from wikipedia) and a similar effect governs telescope optics:




I'll probably invest in some "faster" lenses as I progress, but I'm pretty psyched on my current configuration. Other than all that I have my camera bag, lens cloths, backup batteries, charger, memory cards, usb cables, a remote shutter release for all my long exposures, and a DIY film canister mounted PS3 webcam (Infrared Filter modified) for use in lunar and planetary videos which are then separated into frames and stacked to bring out detail - a technique that I haven't yet ventured into due to software deficiencies.  Also, a big ups to my moms for handing down her video camera tripod made by SUNPAK - its totally smooth and sturdy (currently trying to modify its quick release mount to be pinned to my backpack shoulder strap for use in wilderness hiking/photography) and really facilitates quick setups, operations, and mobility.

So that's about it for my gear setup and hopefully I will have to do many many many updates as you all begin to learn about prime focus adapters, focal reducers, EQ mounts, Alt/Az mounts, tracking, CCDs, Oxygen III and H-Alpha filters, SCTs vs. APO Doublet or Triplet refractors, autoguiders, all-sky cams, various software programs, dark/light/bias frames, green laser pointers and red laser collimators.  And that's not even going into how bad I want to build my own large aperture Dobsonian telescope and 360 deg. swivel binocular chair:



Cheers and thanks for reading!  Clear skies John..