The Astrology Connection
Panek, Richard, Natural History
Celestial events are always significant-or are they?
When celestial conjunctions occur, they often belong to the close-but-no-cigar school of sky watching. Technically, a conjunction describes a precise alignment of heavenly bodies that happen to have the same celestial longitude-that is, they appear to line up in the sky, one directly above the other. On occasion, the bodies line up one in front of the other, a circumstance that historically has lent itself to all manner of scientific investigations. But on an informal basis, the word "conjunction" generically refers to the fleeting convergence of celestial objects, a happenstance that's aesthetically pleasing-and astronomically significant for that reason alone. When a serendipitous close gathering of celestial objects is assigned greater significance, the reason is likely to be astrological.
At one time, astronomy and astrology were virtually indistinguishable. Astronomers of old might study the sky to help plan the harvest or coordinate a calendar, but they earned their keep primarily by prophesying favorable heavenly portents for the rulers who employed them. And those portents tended to focus on the movements of the mysterious wanderers-the Sun, Moon, and planets-against the seemingly immovable backdrop of stars.
But in the broad sense, conjunctions mark mere cosmic coincidences, and even then, only from the point of view of an observer on Earth. Once our planet lost its position of privilege as the center of the cosmos, that point of view lost its relevance, except where it might prove useful for science. Studies of the motions of Venus as it neared inferior and superior conjunctionspassing on our side and on the far side of the Sunhelped validate the heliocentric model of the cosmos (see "Venusian Testimony" Natural History, 6/99). Observations of Mercury and Venus transiting the Sun-passing directly in front of it, from the point of view of an observer on Earth-helped determine the scale of the solar system (see "Mercury in Transit," Natural History, 11/99). And in 1919, a total solar eclipse (an extreme example, being a conjunction that's also an occultation) helped validate Einstein's general theory of relativity.
But what about plain old conjunctions in the broadest sense? For academic purposes, virtually their only astronomical significance is measured in terms of insights they might offer into ancient astrology. (For a riveting example of how conjunction scholarship can open a window on ancient cultures, see Michael R. Molnar's 1999 book The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi.)
This is not to say that people don't still confuse astronomy and astrology (or that, heaven knows, astrology isn't still popular). In fact, I can personally attest to having been asked many times about my writing on "astrology." And a subscription mailing referring to this magazine's coverage of "astrology" was sent out fox years before an alert reader finally noticed it. (A similar fate sometimes befalls cosmology. A recent press release for a book by physicist Lawrence M. Krauss highlighted his research into dark matter as "one of the great paradoxes of modern cosmetology"-indeed, as a problem "now connected with two of the hottest areas in recent cosmetology." In this case, however, cosmology and cosmetology don't bear any historical relation to each other, except that both vocations can get a little hairy.)
Even when popular interest in a planetary conjunction isn't purely astrological, it can still be the result of mere superstition. This year, a gathering of planets on May 5 has generated a great deal of apocalyptic speculation on the Internet, specifically about whether the combined gravitational pull of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn on the far side of the Sun will be enough to knock Earth off its axis. …