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Astrology in late 20th century America is about as common as flies on dung. From the daily horoscopes of a local newspaper to Cosmopolitan's Bedside Astrologer, our society is bombarded by astrological forecasts and guidelines. It is the rare individual who does not know what their astrological sign is, or what its implications are. Clearly, a large number of people take this information quite seriously (right on up to certain former occupants of the White House). By the same token, there are many people who wouldn't consider a horoscope worth the paper it's printed on. With so many people involved in what is obviously a sizable industry, a look at the underpinnings may prove illuminating. After all, both sides can't be right.
Some people argue for or against the veracity of astrology based on its history. Those in favor may site its long life while those against might claim that it was just a technique used by a priesthood to control the peasants. Not having been at the inception, our present day analysis is prone to a certain amount of error. Instead of that approach, let's examine it from an engineering perspective. In other words, what is it that makes it tick? What is the vehicle by which astrology influences human behavior? Ultimately, that's the big question. With such a mechanism in place, you can better understand its influence and function.
The most basic premise is that "the heavens" (loosely defined as the planets orbiting our sun and the visible stars nearby) have an impact on the human species. This part is pretty hard to deny in that without the birth and death of stars, the heavier elements required by life on Earth would never have been made. Also, there is evidence that the Earth's ecosystem has been severely impacted at times in the past by extraterrestrial objects such as meteorites and comets. This would clearly impact the lifeforms which inhabited the planet at that time. On a less cataclysmic scale, there is little doubt that celestial occurrences affected human societies (such as solar eclipses). On a more mundane level the position of the moon affects the tides which in turn may affect the food gathering or ceremonial occasions of some societies. But then, that's not what most people think of when they think in terms of modern astrology. No, what we're looking at is something like "I was born in early May, and because of that, tomorrow would be a good day to ask my boss for a raise". In other words, the typical premise is that an individual's day to day interactions with others is strongly influenced by the position of certain heavenly bodies at the time of the individual's birth.
What is it about the positions of planets and stars at the time of your birth which would affect you for the rest of your life? What are the forces which effectively shape you? At present we have uncovered four fundamental forces of nature. They are the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity. The nuclear forces work on the atomic scale and their effect is far too small to be seen on the human scale, let alone the celestial scale. Electromagnetism can be represented as a continuous range frequencies from the 60 Hertz 120 VAC line in your house, through the broadcast bands, and beyond visible light. This is something which clearly acts on a celestial scale. You can walk outside on any clear night and see stars which are thousands of light years away. The problem here is that most people in an industrial society are not born outside on clear nights. They are usually born in closed rooms under artificial light. In other words, the effect of starlight is swamped out by local conditions. Even if a person were born outside, there is still the effect of atmospheric light scattering and absorption due to Earth's atmosphere, clouds, and the like. Similar arguments can be made for other ranges in the electromagnetic spectrum. It appears that this force is not the mechanism by which astrology works.
The remaining force is gravity. Again, gravity works on a celestial scale and thus, is a candidate. After all, most people these days understand that it is gravity which holds them to the Earth, ties the Earth and moon together, ties the planets to the sun, and so on. Gravity is also a well studied force. A basic equation defining the gravitational attraction of two bodies is:
where G is the universal gravitation constant, m1 and m2 are the masses of the two objects in question, d is the distance between the two objects, and f is the resulting force.
Note that the larger the masses involved, the greater the resulting force. Also, the force weakens greatly as the two objects get further apart. Let's consider the case of Jupiter (the most massive planet in our solar system) on your body at birth. First, we need to gather some data. We'll use a 3 kilogram baby (about 6.6 pounds). G is 6.67 times 10-11 with units of newtons times meters squared per kilogram squared. Jupiter's mass is approximately 1.9 times 1027 kilograms. Its distance from the sun (i.e., its mean distance from Earth) is about 7.8 times 1011 meters (from Principles of Astronomy by Wyatt, 1968 Allyn & Bacon, Inc.). Grinding this through a hand calculator yields a force of 6.25 times 10-7 newtons. The question is, "Is this a considerable value?" To answer this, let's perform the same calculation, only this time considering the effect of a 75 kilogram (165 pound) doctor or nurse holding the baby in their arms (about .3 meters or 1 foot away). The resulting force is 1.67 times 10-7 newtons, only about four times smaller. In other words, as a whole, the people around you at birth have a greater effect than Jupiter does. Note that this is an average calculation and that at certain times Jupiter's effect will be slightly greater or less. Is this variation important? Not really, especially when you consider that Jupiter's year is about 12 Earth years in length. This means that Jupiter and Earth are not the same distance apart at any given month of the year and only resync every 12 years. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the other planets do not have the same year length as either Earth or Jupiter. Mind you, the momentary force imparted on the baby by someone lifting it can be several newtons, or over a million times the force imparted by Jupiter. Clearly then, gravity is not the mechanism which explains astrology.
Well, we've exhausted all of the known forces, and none of them can explain astrology. At this point, you may be tempted to shout "Wait! What if there are forces we don't know about? What if there is a force 'X' which is the mechanism of astrology?" Clearly, science is not a big book with the all of the answers contained therein. Science is really a process, a technique to discover the unknown. It is quite possible that there is a force we don't know about. Can we then postulate the existence of force X and end the discussion with force X as our proof? If we do, we won't have answered the question. Instead, we will have simply rephrased it. We in essence, renamed astrology as mysterious unknown force X. We are no further along. After all, we could postulate a force Y which makes force X possible, a force Z which makes force Y possible, and so on forever.
In sum, there is no known physical mechanism by which astrology works. This is not to say that a person is not influenced by the horoscope which they might read in a newspaper. The power of suggestion is well documented. This does indicate, however, that it is not the planets which determine the fate of individuals. In physical terms, your life is probably less influenced by the position of Jupiter or Mars at your birth than say, the color of the floor tiles in the maternity room. Unless of course your boss believes in this stuff and his horoscope says it's time to fire you.
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