What was that I heard? Countless people throwing their morning newspapers' horoscopes in the bin? Or was it the cries of disbelief by thousands of "head-strong" Leos complaining that they'd been reassigned to "home-making" duties as a Cancerian?
There's been a lot of noise today about the realization that astrology had lost its (non-existent) foundations in reality and that it might actually be a load of rubbish. Why? Well, with the help of Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, he managed to find the source of the controversy.
In an unassuming Jan. 9 StarTribune.com article, an astronomer and an astronomy teacher from the Minneapolis area were interviewed. Their opinions on astrology were printed and the general consensus was that astrology doesn't work. No surprises there.
This isn't news (in fact, it's really old news), but for some reason people paid attention to this particular article. The media went wild, astrologers felt compelled to write newsletters and science bloggers went for the jugular.
Back on Oct. 29, 2010, our very own astronomy contributor (and BBC astronomy presenter) Mark Thompson pointed out the reasons why the very basis of astrology is out of whack:
But according to astrologers there are 12 signs of the zodiac. Wrong! There are 13 signs of the zodiac; Ophiuchus is the ‘new' one yet for some curious reason I have never come across an Ophiuchian!
As you may have guessed, this isn't a new development. The Earth's precession is always steadily skewing the position of the sun through the constellations in a cycle lasting 26,000 years. You may have been born under a certain sign, as it was 2,000 years ago, but since then the sun has shifted and you were really born under a different constellation. Yet, astrologers haven't worried about synchronizing their signs with the actual constellations.
And now - hold onto your hats! - there's a 13th constellation that, due to the skewing effect caused by the Earth's precession, should have its own sign. That constellation is called Ophiuchus, between Scorpio and Sagittarius.
Technically, the Sun passes through Ophiuchus, and in fact is in the constellation longer than it's in Scorpius! But we don't include it in the zodiac for a couple of reasons; one is that the stars in it are pretty faint, while those of Scorpius are brighter and easier to recognize, and another is that we can't have 13 constellations, can we? So poor Ophiuchus is sent off to hold his serpent by himself.
If star signs are no longer in sync with the actual constellations, and technically there should be 13 signs of the zodiac and not the current 12, how can astrologers justify the validity of their practice?
They don't have to justify anything, after all, astrology isn't a science. It is a trust in some kind of higher power (i.e. magic) that we have to believe is there. So long as astrologers make vague predictions about people's lives, and there are believers who will pay for these predictions, modern astrology is going nowhere.
But as this little kerfuffle has shown, the zodiac has absolutely zero physical effect on our lives and it never has.
Just in case you want to know the "real" dates of astrological signs according to astronomers, here they are (courtesy of Live Science):
Capricorn: Jan. 20-Feb. 16.
Aquarius: Feb. 16-March 11.
Pisces: March 11-April 18.
Aries: April 18-May 13.
Taurus: May 13-June 21.
Gemini: June 21-July 20.
Cancer: July 20-Aug. 10.
Leo: Aug. 10-Sept. 16.
Virgo: Sept. 16-Oct. 30.
Libra: Oct. 30-Nov. 23.
Scorpio: Nov. 23-29.
Ophiuchus: Nov. 29-Dec. 17.
Sagittarius: Dec. 17-Jan. 20.
Image: The Prague astronomical clock, including 12 signs of the zodiac (Reed Kaestner/Corbis)