Over the weekend I started seeing links to articles claiming that NASA has changed the signs of the zodiac. I knew immediately what this was about, even as I was scratching my head about a) how this is news, and b) how short people’s memories are.
I found a few articles about this NASA “news” here and there; there’s one on Yahoo that has the headline, “Your Astrological Sign Just Changed, Thanks To NASA”. The first paragraph alone is burdened with quite a few scientific errors:
“We don’t want to be dramatic, but NASA just ruined our lives. For the first time in 3,000 years, they’ve decided to update the astrological signs. This means that the majority of us are about to experience a total identity crisis. Apparently, these changes are due to the fact that the constellations are not in the same position in the sky that they once were, and the star signs are about a month off now, as a result. To further confuse things, there is now a new, 13th sign, called Ophiuchus, which those born between November 29 and December 17 are lucky enough to have to learn to pronounce.”
Cripes. No, no, and no. First off, NASA did not “update the astrological signs”. Second, the constellations haven’t changed. And third, Ophiuchus is an ancient constellation, identified by the Greeks thousands of years ago.
So what’s the deal? Well, before we even get started, keep this in mind: astrology isn’t science; it’s nonsense. It’s been tested 10 ways to Sunday and every time it fails. Even astrologers have come up with tests for it, and it has failed those. Astrology doesn’t work.
Despite that, lots of people believe in it. That’s why I wrote a lengthy and detailed debunking of astrology.
So what’s the deal with this recent silliness? It has to do with the zodiac. As I wrote in an article on the zodiac:
“The planets, including the Earth, orbit the Sun on pretty much the same plane (from the side, the solar system’s planets’ orbits look flat). From the Earth, it looks like the Sun moves around us once per year. The path it takes across the sky is the same year after year, and we call this the ecliptic. The planets all move across the sky in that same path, too.
“So, like clockwork, the Sun passes into the same constellations at a certain time every year. You know the names of these constellations: Sagittarius, Libra, Scorpius, Aries, Gemini… the constellation of the zodiac, or, if you prefer, the zodiacal constellations.”
These 12 zodiacal constellations have been recognised in one way or another around the world, though most countries (and the International Astronomical Union) have adopted a modified version of them known to the ancient Babylonians and Greeks.
The thing is, there are more than 12 constellations the sun can pass through. Some are smaller, or have fainter stars, so they get ignored. The biggest is Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, which is a huge constellation taking up quite a bit of celestial real estate, and in fact the sun spends more time in Ophiuchus than Scorpius. Scorpius has brighter stars and an obvious scorpion-like shape, so it gets better press.
So no, NASA didn’t add in Ophiuchus or change the zodiac or anything like that. Ophiuchus has been around this whole time, but has been ignored by astrologers. They’re the ones who should take the blame for all this, not actual scientists who don’t even think astrology is worth wrapping fish in anyway.
Worse, there aren’t really 13 zodiacal constellations. By some counts, there are as many as 21. Not only that, but Earth wobbles like a top, very slowly, and over centuries that changes the dates the sun is in a given constellation. If you were born in late March in ancient Greece, you would have been an Aries. Today, you’d be a Pisces.
Given that astrology is based on all this, shouldn’t astrologers at least get their basic facts straight before trying to influence your life?
Finally, why is this suddenly news? This is the final irony here. This new foofaraw got started, apparently, due to an article on a NASA site for kids called SpacePlace. I like this site a lot and refer quite a few parents and teachers to it. It has simple explanations written at a level for children to understand, and it’s fun and accurate.
The SpacePlace article, Constellations and the Calendar, has been around a while but was updated in January 2016, which may have caught some astrology believer’s eye. The article – well worth your time to read – talks about how the zodiac constellations are defined, and how, over time, they’ve changed (as I described above). Apparently, someone didn’t read it very carefully, or didn’t understand it, and wrote that NASA had changed the zodiac. So, yeah. Wow.
But this isn’t even the first time this sort of thing has happened. Almost exactly the same story bubbled up in 2011.
You can’t keep a good piece of pseudoscience down. It’s like a zombie, always rising again.
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You know what also rises? The sun. And when it does, it’ll be because Earth is spinning, and orbiting it, and we’ll see the stars and planets and moons doing their thing. And we’ll study them with science and learn their ways, and if people who believe in astrology want to keep looking to the past, well, let ’em. As long as they promise to remember it.
And that reminds me: in one sense, astrology is correct. There is a group of people whose lives are affected by the stars and planets: astronomers. And if I can help spread that particular love, then I’ll be more than happy to.
This article first appeared on Slate