When I was a child, my father took me up on the roof of the chicken coop on our small New Jersey farm to watch Sputnik whiz by. I couldn’t believe that it was so small and so fast. It was, to be honest, a little anti-climactic to my 10 year old mind. Still, I was amazed by the concept that something could be put on a rocket and sent into space for us to see. It was like magic. Science often seems magical. In her essay, “Retrograde Beliefs” in the Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Kristen Dombek, an essayist and teacher at Princeton, writes about this connection.
Magical beliefs include astrology.
On Jan. 21, at 10:54 a.m. Eastern Time, Mercury will begin its first pass by Earth of the new year. For about three weeks, it will appear to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.
There is, of course a scientific explanation for Mercury’s movements.
The story of Mercury is a cautionary tale too, about thinking there is a connection between how things work on Earth and how they work in the heavens. Every time Mercury orbits the sun, it ends up a bit ahead of where it began, so that the planet traces in space not a steady ellipsis but a pattern of flower petals. Called precession, some of this jumping ahead is explainable by Newton’s laws. But some isn’t. The difference between where Mercury should end up, according to the law of gravity that works on Earth, and where it actually ends up, is minuscule — 43 arc seconds per century — but it was enough to puzzle astronomers for years, even leading to speculation about a phantom planet, Vulcan, that might influence Mercury’s orbit.
What it took, in the end, to explain Mercury’s precession was Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity; Mercury flies close enough to the sun that it travels through a part of space-time so bent by the sun’s mass that the planet is dragged a bit farther along each time. The fact that things work so differently in space than they do on Earth, not to mention at the quantum level, has physicists conjuring ideas even stranger than any malevolent planet — string theory, multiple universes — to connect it all together again.
The really scary thing about astrology, however, is not that so many will be worried about their technology as well as their lives, but that
The belief that the movements of celestial bodies govern our lives is more popular in the United States than it has been in two decades, according to a recent National Science Foundation report. In a 2012 survey, a third of Americans viewed astrology as “sort of scientific” and another 10 percent as “very scientific.” Belief is most prevalent among 18-to-24-year-olds but has markedly increased among 35-to-44-year-olds in recent years. To put this in perspective: More Americans believe in astrology, or “sort of” believe in astrology, than believe that climate change is influenced by the burning of fossil fuels.
Think of that. More Americans believe in astrology than believe there is a human element to climate change! This is part of the current trend to distrust science and facts. Everything is magic. The moon landings and most certainly the recent landing on a comet were staged. There can’t be climate change because winters are so cold. The increase in the number of earthquakes in places where there is fracking is just a coincidence. We have forgotten about facts because it is more convenient to ignore them when they don’t fit a particular belief system.
Like Kristen Dombek, I love Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”. Dombek writes
There was something about this story that married a love of quantum physics and astrophysical theory to a witchy sense of cosmic magic; it sent me not away from science, but toward it, suggesting that my relentless research, in my parents’ library and in the woods and streams of our farm, might matter, even though I was a girl.
I am not a scientist, but I read science articles, follow space exploration, and think that mapping the brain is fascinating. Real science that discovers facts is even more magical than all those science deniers could ever imagine. All they need to do is look.