Yesterday, I went on Facebook. Not an unusual activity for someone my age. Or for someone my parents’ age, which I still haven’t gotten used to. But that’s not the point of this.
Several of my “friends” had statuses mentioning "Ophiuchus", whatever that is. One girl’s panicked reaction to this unpronounceable phenomenon had received enough attention to elicit ten of my peers to "comment" on it.
So, I did what any self-respecting person would do. I decided if nineteen-year-old girls were fascinated by it, it was probably just as important as Justin Beiber and Twilight.
But when I went on Twitter, I found that five of the last seven “tweets” the “tweeters” I follow had “tweeted” were about this “new zodiac sign” (the other two were about boobs and college basketball).
From what I can tell from my “friends” on social networking sites, the public understanding is that there is now a 13th zodiac sign called Ophiuchus in between Scorpio and Sagittarius. Many of my peers were quite upset about the new sign, including one Brooklyn-dwelling associate who was particularly miffed about the consequences for symbolism in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
The most common rationalization of Ophiuchus’ existence was that the “new” zodiac doesn’t apply to people born before 2010 “because this new zodiac sign didnt exist before, since the equinox hadnt changed yet or whatever…” and “i havent noticed any radical planetary shift in my personality, so i refuse to recognize my sign as anything other than what i was born with.” If you can look past the internet teen’s lack of apostrophes or capitalization, you can see a desperate attempt to justify why the night sky isn’t any different than it was a week ago. However, there’s a much simpler answer.
It isn’t any different than it was a week ago.
Before yesterday, I was vaguely aware that the twelve constellations that comprise the zodiac were no longer the most prominent sign in the night sky during the dates they were commonly associated with. For example, I am a Cancer, but if I were to look in the night sky on my birthday, the most prominent constellation would be Gemini. Actually, if I were to look into the night sky on my birthday, I’d probably see the Moon, Venus, Polaris, Sirius, the Empire State Building, and not much else. But that’s because I live in Manhattan and beside the point.
While refreshing my knowledge of astronomy, it became evident that Ophiuchus is in the same place in the night sky it’s been for centuries. The IAU, the same guys who decided Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore, listed as one of their 88 official constellations back in the 1920s.
The Students for the Exploration and Development of Space website’s entry on the constellation contains the following passage:
“Although this constellation is not part of the zodiac the sun passes through Ophiuchus in December each year. When the zodiac first was invented by the Babylonians 3000 years ago, the sun just passes through the twelve constellations to which we still refer as the zodiac. Due to the precession of the Earth the apparent way of the sun through the sky has changed through the millenniums [sic].”
While this passage contains a bit too much scientific lingo, the basic idea is pretty clear. When the ancient Babylonians devised their zodiac, they thought the Earth was fixed at the center of an orb, and the heavens were painted on the inner surface. They divided the night sky into twelve equal sections, and labeled each section with a star picture they saw in it. Over the next 3000 years, humanity realized that the Earth itself moves with respect to the stars. Therefore, our perspective of the night sky slowly changes. The change is unnoticeable year to year, but over three millennia all those little changes add up. We’re seeing the heavens at a different angle than the ancient Babylonians, so their labels no longer make any sense. However, the labels stuck, and although they no longer have the same connection to astronomical fact, some people still use them to figure out if that office romance will ever work.
All that happened this week was that some guy from Minnesota— who is NOT a capital “P” Professor — informed The Star-Tribune and several other Twin Cities News outlets of this fact. Astronomy and Astrology are exactly the same as they were yesterday, and some guy from Minnesota’s attempt to confuse the entire internet by claiming everyone "has a new sign" is a disservice to both disciplines.
Astronomy is a scientific discipline concerned with accurately observing and cataloging phenomena in outer space. Astrology isn’t, it is a form of art. A 3000-year-old understanding of the stars works just fine for Astrology’s purposes. The inclusion of Ophiuchus in the Astrological Zodiac wouldn’t make it any more accurate, because Astrology hasn’t been based in objective reality for millennia.
Michael J Kennelly is a Senior Physics Major at Columbia University, where he holds a I.I. Rabi Scholarship. He has completed research internships at Columbia, Rutgers University, The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratories, and The Large Hadron Collider at CERN. He hasn’t cared about anything happening in Minnesota since a 41-year-old man was found concussed on the state university’s football field last month.
Image courtesy of Amadeus Varadi Hellequin