Yesterday afternoon I was contacted by a journalist who wanted to know if I knew anything about the “new zodiac”. It seems that there’s a 13th sign, which means that all the other star sign dates will have to change to make room. We’ll probably all have to change to a different sign, and some of us will now be an ‘Ophiuchus’ (One way to pronounce it is something like oh-PHEW-cuss, in case you were wondering). My first impulse was to say “You mean all the horoscopes up till now have been baloney? Say it aint so!” but I restrained myself . If you want to be taken seriously, don’t resort to mockery, but let the facts speak for themselves. So without further ado, let’s get started.
This is news?
The world of astrology is all abuzz with this news, but in fact it’s not news at all. This thirteenth constellation (Ophiuchus, or The Serpent Bearer) has always been there. And astronomers have known for centuries that it’s intruding into the zodiac. To us folk who actually look at the sky, this is ancient history. We’re shaking our heads, looking a bit confused and saying “What, you only noticed now?”. Heck, we probably knew about it before Newton figured out what gravity was!
So why has the world of Astrology taken so long to notice? Well from what little I know, the entire pseudoscience is based on tradition, and received wisdom from ancient astrologers. When new planets are discovered, astrologers either ignore them or come up with rationalisations for why their influence never mattered before but now it does. The influences ascribed to the various planets and constellations are based on Greek Mythology (Mercury was a messenger, Jupiter was jolly, etc), which itself was just a series of loosely connected stories, which changed over the centuries. It’s a faith, in other words, with pretensions towards real science.
Astronomers have been saying this for years, and it’s always been ignored. I think this is because people who read horoscopes simply don’t want to be told it’s false. What’s changed? I would guess (based on no evidence or research) that an astrologer has decided to boost his popularity by writing a shocking new book detailing a “new zodiac”, and hopes to make a killing. Maybe it’s not an astrologer, but an astronomer who fell to the dark side. I’ll definitely be updating this page when somebody emails me proper information!
Foundations of Astrology
But enough speculation. What exactly is going on here? Let’s review a few basics that you would have learned in school. The Earth spins on its axis every 24 hours, and also moves around the Sun every 365.25 days (roughly). As we spin around, we spend half the day on the same side of Earth as the Sun (daytime) and the other half on the opposite side (night time). Now the stars and constellations are so far away that they’re essentially motionless – we can pretty much ignore their movements. At any one date we can only ever see the stars in half the sky, because the Sun is on the other half (and when you can see that half, it’s daytime). This is all pretty basic stuff that everybody knows.
But every day, the Earth moves a bit further around the Sun, so that our view of the stars shifts slightly. Today we see one half of them, but six months from now we’re on the other side of the Sun, where we can see the rest. Over the course of a year, we get to see the whole sky. Of course, from the ground it looks like we’re stationary and the sky is moving, taking a whole year to do a full revolution (This is how the ancients were able to measure the length of a year, incidentally.) And if you mark the Sun’s position in the sky every day for a year, you’ll find it moves through the same path every year. This path is called The Ecliptic.
Fresco showing Saturn, flanked by Aquarius and Capricorn
Over two thousand years ago, when Astrology was in its infancy, the Greeks noticed that the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) never strayed far from the Ecliptic – they were constrained to a narrow strip of the sky. They also noticed patterns in the arrangement of the stars. Using a lot of imagination, they assigned constellations to the various patterns, and gave them names and stories from their mythology. Twelve of these constellations fitted quite neatly along the ecliptic, and completely covered the space in which the planets travelled. They called this band of constellations the Zodiac (literal translation: Animal Circle. I know, I know, they’re not all animals. Astrology is not an exact science), and these constellations were the familiar signs of the zodiac. By charting the position of the Sun on the day of your birth, and the positions of the various planets in each constellation, they could draw conclusions about your personality, your future, and more. Incidentally, the Ecliptic is reasonably well aligned with the plane of the Solar System, which doesn’t hurt when it comes to mystical respectability. So far so good.
Unfortunately for astrologers, times have changed. The zodiac no longer lines up nicely with the Ecliptic, thanks to an effect known as Precession. If you’ve ever played with a toy gyroscope, or a spinning top, you will have noticed that it wobbles slowly. The more massive the gyroscope, the slower and more ponderous the wobble. This wobble is called Precession, and is caused by the gyroscopic action responding to the uneven gravitational force. The unevenness comes from the fact that the gyroscope is not perfectly upright, and so gravity pulls it more to one side than to the other (It tries to topple over, but can’t). The Earth spins quite rapidly (about 1600km/h at the equator) and at six thousand billion BILLION tonnes, it is extremely massive. Although Earth can’t topple over (it’s in space – where would it topple to?), it is still imperfectly balanced and so the Sun’s gravity pulls unevenly, causing Earth to precess at a rate of one wobble every 26,000 years. Of course, we don’t feel any such wobble. Instead, we see the dome of the sky appear to wobble around us – or at least, we would if we didn’t have such short lives.
Out of Alignment
Classical representation of a horoscope, showing the 12 houses
So what effect does precession have on Astrology? There are two effects, actually. First of all, the wheel of the zodiac turns, so that the individual constellations gradually move away from their original position. This doesn’t mean that it’s actually moving separately from the rest of the stars, but that the position of the Sun on any particular date very slowly moves along to the next sign. Since there are twelve signs, the position of the Sun takes a little over two thousand years to move to the next sign. In other words, the dates neatly printed underneath each star-sign in your horoscope are off by about a month. You’ve been following the wrong sign.
But it gets worse than that, because the angle of precession is about 23 degrees off from the ecliptic. This means that, not only is the zodiac “turning”, it’s wobbling as well. The ecliptic no longer passes through the middle of the zodiac at all, but passes in and out of it twice a year. This has ruined the lovely spacing of the original signs, so that the Sun is only in some signs for a week or two, and in others for several months. So those dates in the horoscope are not only out by a few months, they’re also not supposed to be so regular either!
And the thirteenth sign? Well since the Ecliptic no longer lines up with the zodiac, a new constellation has managed to elbow its way into the Ecliptic so that the Sun now passes through thirteen constellations over the space of one year. Of course, Ophiuchus is not new at all – it’s been around just as long as all the others. It was just never in the Zodiac before, and was therefore of no interest to astrologers. Now, though, they’re suddenly all aware of it. Their responses are varied – either denying that the constellations have anything to do with star signs (as if the matching names was just a coincidence), or hastily creating a New Zodiac, with the thirteen signs (but not doing anything to correct the date shift, oh dear).
My favourite part of all this is the fact that, despite the fact that I’m talking about this as if it happened yesterday, it is seriously old news. The Ecliptic has been moving into Ophiuchus for centuries already. In fact, it’s gotten so far that the sun now actually spends more time in the Ophiuchus than it does in Scorpius (or the old-fashioned Scorpio, as they call it. See what I mean about being stuck in tradition?) . Astrologers have been blissfully casting their horoscopes and telling us that “Mercury is in the house of whatever” for ages, never once looking up to notice that the universe disagrees with them!
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