Astro to Astro

Eris (center) and Dysnomia (left of center)
HST image credited to NASA, ESA, and M. Brown

Update, November 6 2023: This article may reflect my own inner soul scars between science and our actual experiences. I wrote it because I got the notion to during a time when a lot of my priors on a lot of things were loosening up. And even just a couple of months ago I was standing outside, got what I thought was a great idea, and whoosh a bright meteor tore right through Ophiuchus. I’ll leave this article here, but “epistemic status: uncertain”.

I know this is 2022. Many people are insisting that down is up.1On a planetary scale, your down is somebody’s up: here is a Kurzgesagt video about that But as the saying goes, what goes down, must come up.

So lost are we without meaningful meaning, that we have to explain proverbs like “a penny saved is a penny earned”. Actually, that’s one that’s always bothered me. So where is the truth in that one? It is true that a penny you save is one you have but don’t spend, so it doesn’t put you ahead plus one penny like earning a new penny would. And that is an objection, but it misses the point.

It’s really saying that you should have the same virtue credit for saving it as much as for earning it, that thrift is as important as sweat. (The person who coined the phrase ought to be Scottish, but it was actually the Wales-born George Herbert who said in 1610, “A penny spar’d is twice got,” and the doubling down compared to the phrase in use today is a clue that we’re talking about virtue rather than accounting.)

But there can also be things that are not presently proverbial that can also be true.

Astronomers should silverman astrology.

Let me explain.

Practically all modern day professional astronomers are also physicists by necessity. Or better yet mathematicians that do spherical geometry in their sleep and know the physics appropriate to their special interests.

All ancient day astronomers were also astrologers. Indeed, there was no distinction. That’s why theirs is the original word. So, one might say, astrology is to astronomy what philosophy is to science, or what the experience of speaking your native tongue is to formal grammar, or what a human language is to linguistics, or even what the humanities are to the sciences.

We are so used to siloing knowledge that it’s hard to even have a vision of what knowledge across disciplines looks like. Especially disciplines that don’t share a common body of theory, like how for instance cosmology and high-energy physics inform each other.

But knowledge itself, with truth and ideally a little kindness at the core, can unify disciplines. All that matters is being committed to the truth.

Knowledge, about the world. Knowledge, about ourselves. And knowledge, in this case indeed, about the heavens.

So, I am suggesting that what people now call astrology was the practical2as in having utility for living life and aesthetic side of a once-unified astrology.

It was the reflective beauty and the geometry that united what we now call the two sides.

Together, it was the celestial module of humanity.

If I have to put it in material terms, what we now call astrology is a meta-physical art. It’s basically a picture of meaning:

Apparently this is Times Square one minute into the year 2000, the ball having just been dropped! Image contributed to Wikipedia Commons by Fred the Oyster.

Of course my eyes are not trained, and so I don’t see the meaning. But as we know from the very existence of other human languages, just because we don’t understand the meaning doesn’t mean the meaning isn’t there.

And so what I propose is that people who call themselves astronomers3or astrophysicists, inasmuch as they’re not nominatively determined to silo themselves! attempt to understand the meaning. (And that’s all I’m saying! I’m certainly not in the business of telling people, least of all people with enough fortitude to write pages and pages of math just to compute the uncertainties for their formulae, what they ought to believe.)

This is a little like the idea of steelmanning an opponent’s idea as opposed to strawmanning your idea of it (intentionally or not: people don’t think straight when they’re angry).

But in this case I’m not sure that the forceful strength of steel is the appropriate metaphor, because I fear that it will get reduced to strictly measurement-friendly forces, and then we’ll lose the plot. For example, we can measure the influence of the Earth-Moon gravitational relationship through tides, and I think it is something to do with that influence that shows up in words like “lunacy”.

of Montreal, “Disconnect the Dots”

One thing that struck me while I was abroad as a young adult (I was on a couple of Canada World Youth programs to Poland4A man from Toruń stopped the Sun and moved the Earth, incidentally! And a lot of people really did read his book. and Ukraine, and I taught (in) English at a private grade school in Japan for a year) was the question of what the weather is like in Canada.

Some days, it is not too dissimilar, from coast to coast to coast to the border with those otherwise fine people who really didn’t like George III. But other days, there might be a blizzard in Winnipeg while people are working in their flower gardens in Victoria. There might be5believe it or not, there might not be rain in Prince Rupert, but things are cold and clear in Pangnirtung, yet sunny and warm in Halifax.

I feel like astrology, too, suffers from the public’s difficulty in appreciating scope. I say that word meaning scale, but it also turns out of course that horoscopes are fundamentally unappreciated:

“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Your Horoscope for Today”

Let’s consider the bridge:

Now you may find it inconceivable or rather very least a bit unlikely that the relative position of the planets and the stars could have a special deep significance or meaning that exclusively applies to only you

But let me give you my assurance that these forecasts and predictions are all based on solid, scientific, documented evidence, so you would have to be some kind of moron not to realize that every single one of them is absolutely true

There’s a bit to unpack here, but let’s start with “exclusively applies to only you”. It might, but probably not, and not in the way you might think.

There are 12 zodiac signs. These used to map to the zodiac / ecliptical6the ecliptic being the plane between the Earth and the Sun – the Moon and other planets will be seen to be travelling along it inasmuch as it is also the plane of the Solar System constellations themselves, but the Earth’s axial precession causes us to gradually be facing different directions at the same time of year from year to year, not to mention cycle through pole stars (we currently use Polaris, in the time of Ancient Egypt it was Thuban).

The signs that we talk of ourselves as being – as in, I was born January 31st 1982, therefore definitionally I am an Aquarius (and Dog in the Chinese tradition) – is based on where the Sun is when we are born.

The 5th Dimension, “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In”

Now you might talk about where the Sun is in terms of whether it’s rising, or if it’s near noon, or it’s setting. This is not actually about that. When we’re talking about things rising and setting, what’s really happening is the Earth is rotating beneath all of that stuff. It’s not just the Sun that rises and sets, it’s all the other stars7actually, the north star, being quite close to the North Celestial Pole, stays in the same part of the sky night and day, hence “constant as the northern star and other planets too.

No, this is motion ‘independent’ of our rotation – this is about where the Sun and the Moon and the planets are relative to the relatively stable background stars. The planets of course orbit around the Sun, so their orientations relative to the Sun change, and we ourselves orbit the Sun too, so we’re looking at different parts of the sky each night8and day, but funny thing: daytime is not particularly good for finding stars other than the Sun over the course of the year. But these motions are subtle compared to us just spinning our spheroid underneath it all.

What’s going on when the sun is “in” a particular constellation
Where the Sun was when I was born: It was just about to rise over the horizon in a time-of-day sense, but in an astronomical sense it was in the constellation Capricornus. Not that I am literally the goat.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this viewpoint9I turned the atmosphere toggle off in Stellarium because there and IRL the sky would have been too bright to see the stars, although Venus would still have been visible. All this is ignoring weather, of course – Mom says there was a snowstorm during the night, and the doctor was stuck in Charlottetown. is tailored for me and of interest to me, or I suppose also to people who are interested in me.

If you’re talking about the kinds of horoscopes you would get in the newspapers, though, it’s reduced to twelfths of humanity10Assuming evenly distributed birth rates, which I actually don’t, but that’s not the point here.. You’re not getting a forecast that exclusively applies to only you. It’s actually meant to be for everyone in the twelfth.

Anyway, let’s move on to the other part, that this is “solid, scientific, documented evidence”. I think this stems from confusion about what evidence is.

You see, some things are easier to measure than other things.

Like how happy are you right now?

And don’t tell me it’s all down to dopamine, because you can be dopamine addicted and yet be perfectly miserable as soon as the carnival stops. Indeed, this is why gambling addicts play to exhaustion, and of course the engineers of the slot machines take full advantage of the fact that you would think the slots are fair.

(Edit: Also, let’s not forget about oxytocin and serotonin. Not to mention that the reality of dopamine is more complicated – it sounds almost more a neurotransmitter for whether you feel you’re on the right track or not with what you’re doing – it’s motivational.)

Four pillars of Gross National Happiness. Graphic by Felix Mueller

Places like Bhutan have attempted to bring a measure to the unmeasurable, through their Gross National Happiness. At first I thought they were just trying to market themselves as having a measured worth akin to GDP/GNP, but they’re actually using it as a guiding philosophy. I think this is coming from a good place, but I hope they don’t take quantification too seriously (as Westerners probably would11but they’re emphatically Eastern, so maybe I don’t have to worry?), or people are going to start expecting year-over-year gains and it could become quite Orwellian.

Red rose in snow, Paulis

Or, is this a good time to hint to a new potential love interest that you are so interested? Or to, you know, flirt?

Don’t tell me the answer is in game alone, in part because you can apply game and be perfectly terrible at it, because your physical affect, reflecting somewhat your real fears and desires, will not match your words. People will sense the incongruity and run for the hills.

Measurement alone will not take us to all the answers. To be wise, we need more. We need to trust the evidence of our senses, and of our own unalloyed good and true experiences. We need to continually reorient ourselves and tell new stories as the Earth spins us around and around and we find new knowledge.

On a related note, we are not going to teach babies about philosophy, logic, and the idea of there being a continuous natural reality outside of our immediate experience before they learn object permanence. Always first the subjective, then the objective within the subjective.

So this is why I think steelmanning is the wrong model of epistemic charity for this case. (Indeed, at least one might say it’s wrong for any case! Collaborative, truth-seeking foci for the win!) We are talking about something that is driven syncretically, not materialistically, at least not in a way that’s easy to detect. So I fear that if someone considers steelmanning astrology to be, for example, checking again to see if newspaper horoscopes are applicable in a way that is unavoidably reduced to ticking boxes on a form, it will miss the point.

But people do agree on the beauty of the heavens.

Or at least they ought to. I remember well seeing an image in the astronomy class for science students. It may well have been this one, but I won’t swear to it:

Three brightest stars, from lower left to upper right: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.
Image from original plates via Samuel Oschin Telescope, Palomar Observatory

So of course I asked, “Is that Orion’s Belt?”

And the professor replied, “I don’t know. I’m not a stargazer.”

Now, before we get too hard on this professor, he’s actually a good guy, and between his course and the second-year course taught by David Turner, we got a good mix of doing the math and actually looking at the skies. Like for realises outside, with telescopes, and later the actual Burke-Gaffney.

But that’s just it. You have to look. (And, if you’re in it for a fuller physical understanding, take your measurements and use your mathematical models to try and make sense of them.)

One thing that I believe, and I got this from Turner, is that it would be handy, even if you only care about the data, to have an intuitive understanding of when you can actually get your data. Believe it or not, you can’t just aim any telescope to anywhere at any time of day or night and observe any part of the cosmos on demand. If you’re studying Polaris, don’t book telescope time in Australia.

People should use aesthetics to find common ground. Indeed, I think the reason why people piled on Neil deGrasse Tyson is because his take looked like it was anti-beauty, and let me just say that that’s something that really spooks people, because going up against beauty is attacking a core human value.

But funny thing, he was actually a little bit right here, if by “lunar eclipse” he meant “partial / penumbral lunar eclipse”. It is true that most people would probably not notice those – they’re very subtle.

This is what people thought Tyson was talking about:

Total lunar eclipse as seen from Irvine, California, May 15 2022.
Image by Sergei Mutovkin.

But I think he was actually talking about:

Partial lunar eclipse as seen from Rabka-Zdrój, Poland, April 25 2013.
Image by Radoslaw Ziomber. (You may notice the Moon here is the way it appears to the eye, compared to the other image which is mirrored, which just comes down to differences in optics – correcting it in the optical system itself would require additional steps, such as erecting prisms or star diagonals.)

But beauty. Beauty is good, film at 11. You ought to have a look at the Moon whether there is an eclipse going on or not. And so, you’ve probably figured this out by now, but I chose ‘silver’ rather than ‘steel’, because while silver is not known for its strength12I can’t not mention Tolkien’s Moria-silver or mithril, which is, it is known for its beauty. Paul Simon might even say there’s a silver girl, sailing on by, whose time has come to shine, and get Art Garfunkel to sing it, as only he can:

Simon and Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

And inasmuch as astrology is an art, a human art13dareisay a humanity, it is vitally important that someone understands it:

“Learn about art, Captain. When you understand a species’ art, you understand that species.” – Grand Admiral Thrawn

Lunar orbit and orientation with respect to the ecliptic
Image by CielProfond

And so, once the lines of communication are open, you might at some point take the opportunity to teach the divination astrologers a little math, if they’re not already asking you questions, which they might well be. Meanwhile, they might imbue in you a renewed appreciation for what’s actually happening in the sky.

Of course a full reconciliation will take years, but I sincerely think it would go a long way towards uniting people and solving the meaning crisis. Maybe it’s happening already! And if you’re an astrophysics PhD on Tinder and a beautiful person on whom nature has smiled has astrology as their interest, please, on behalf of humanity, for the sake of truth and beauty, please swipe right. I don’t need to be able to read a star chart to tell you you’re missing out. (And the same applies going the other way, however I almost don’t need to say it, since people who are into mystic arts in current year are almost certainly going to be more open to novel experiences than the modal person to begin with.)

I will leave you with a choice and well-thought-out musical example of the kind of meaningful syncretism I think we should be striving for:

Phish, “Mercury”

So, inasmuch as we’re all in the mood for mending fences and salvaging our wisdom from the memetic scrapheap, the time has come for people who love the heavens to achieve unity for the first time in hundreds of years. Indeed, one might even say astro-fill-in-the-blank14astrosophy? can become a mendic science.

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