Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 20, 2010

Astrology vs. Astronomy: What Coordinate System to Use?


Introduction

As probably anyone who reads my blog knows, I have recently done a few blog posts related to astrology, specifically criticizing the astrologer Terry Nazon, both for her bad astronomy and for her threats and harassment towards me and a fellow blogger. My compatriot and much more famous and well known anti-astrologer (among other things) Phil Plait was even kind enough to mention me on his blog, though I’ll admit that I did point out my problems with Ms. Nazon.

This post is not about Ms. Nazon. This post is about astrology in general, and specifically whether my criticisms have been fair given that astrologers – some Western astrologers, anyway – use a different coordinate system and different definitions than the world’s astronomers.

What Is Precession?

Also, those who have been reading my blog know that I’m teaching an introductory astronomy class this month for college undergraduates. The second and third day of class were spent going over the motions of the the sky — the stars, sun, planets, moon, etc., over the course of one day, several days, a year, and then thousands of years.

One might think that going to thousands of years is a bit much — shouldn’t the sky look the same year after year? Actually, no. Earth spins on its rotational axis once every 24 hours. It goes around the sun once every 365.25 days (approximately). And during that time around the sun, the rotational axis is pointed at the same spot in the sky (hence why we have seasons).

That’s the year-after-year motion. However, this rotational axis direction does change. Just like a top spins on its axis, but then that axis wobbles in a circle, so does Earth’s axis. Over the course of approximately 26,000 years, Earth’s rotational axis makes one complete “wobble,” returning to the same spot it was before in the sky. This is the mechanism behind what you may have heard about the ancient Egyptians — they had a different North Star than we do today.

You also may have heard that many thousands of years ago, Vega was our North Pole Star, and that it will be again in many more thousands of years. This is all due to precession.

On a short timescale, say, a person’s lifetime, precession will not be noticeable in any meaningful way. But, astrology was not invented one person’s lifetime ago. Western astrology was codified nearly 2000 years ago by Ptolemy, but its origin really dates back more towards ancient Babylon, around 2500 years ago. 2500 is nearly 1/10th of 26,000, and that is a significant fraction.

Practical Effect of Precession

A practical effect, besides the north pole star (and south pole star) changing, is that the sun will appear to be in a different part of the sky on the same date from one year to the next.

For example, this year on the vernal (Spring) equinox, the sun will be in the constellation Pisces. But, 2500 years ago, when Western astrology was being developed, the sun on the vernal equinox was in the constellation Aries. And in roughly 700 years, the sun on the vernal equinox will be in the constellation Aquarius.

The bottom-line: The stars have moved!

To Precess or Not to Precess?

Pretty much all the criticisms of my posts about Ms. Nazon’s astrology focused on the basic fact that many western astrologers do NOT take into account precession. Astronomers, on the other hand, do. And so do many other western astrologers. So is it fair of me to criticize when we’re not, as the saying goes, comparing apples to apples?

In different terminology, astrologers use what is called the “tropical” zodiac instead of the “sidereal” zodiac. (At least, based upon my understanding these terms are interchangeable — tropical zodiac is non-precessed, sidereal is precessed.)

Definition of a Constellation

Another criticism I received is that astrologers do not use the same constellation system that astronomers do. As far as the Zodiac is concerned, astrologers have divided it into 12 equal parts, with each constellation exactly 30° (360° in a circle / 12 = 30°). Astronomers, on the other hand, follow the definition of the International Astronomical Union, as codified in 1930. The constellations do not have fixed 30° intervals, and they of course move with precession.

Here is an area will I will definitely admit that my criticism should at least have been tempered, somewhat. After all, constellations are arbitrary boundaries around pareidolia-ed points of light in the sky as seen from an arbitrary vantage point. Who’s to say that the astrologic system of dividing the Zodiac is any better or worse than the IAU’s?

However, I will unequivocally state that my criticism was not specifically about her boundaries, but more that she was off by about 10% of the sky (precession), rather than a degree or two due to different constellation boundaries.

What Does Astrology Claim to Be?

Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the discussion of precession and the criticism I received …

Believe it or not, I had difficult finding this — what the real root belief is about astrology — so I am going off of what I have read on many astrologers’ websites and my own understanding. So, please correct me if I’m wrong here:

The basic premise of astrology is that the apparent arrangement of stars, planets, moons, the sun, and other objects in the sky, as observed from Earth, all will have an effect on a person (or nation, or company, or whatever) based upon where they were relative to each other on the minute the person/nation/company/thing was born/created, and then where they are now (“they” meaning the astronomical objects).

Okay, even with my rather loose understanding of an exact mechanism (and no two astrologers actually agree on a precise mechanism — but that’s a different post), I think most would agree that that’s the basic idea of how astrology is supposed to work.

So, you need to know, say, where the planet Venus is in the sky. And what constellation it’s in, so you know what personality traits will be taken on. Among other things. Right?

Returning: To Precess or Not to Precess?

Told’ja I’d get back to this. So we need to know where in the sky certain objects will be. From Earth. After all, most of us were probably born on Earth (that’s another blog post, too …).

So shouldn’t you take into account precession? If I look up at the sky, right now, I see Mars in the western sky deep within the constellation Leo. As in, the planet Mars is, in Earth’s sky, physically surrounded by stars in Leo.

Contrast that with a non-precessed sky. This time of year, around 1 B.C., Virgo is squarely in the patch of sky that is currently occupied by Leo. So instead of Mars being surrounded by Leo, it’s surrounded by the stars of Virgo. Now, I don’t pretend to know what that would signify, but I would think that the God of War being surrounded by the Lion is different from being surrounded by the Virgin. Wouldn’t that change your readings?

Besides just this, and I apologize if this may seem to be a silly question, but doesn’t it actually matter what you can see outside versus what you imagine based on what the sky looked like over 2000 years ago? Virgo’s not where it was 2000 years ago … doesn’t this change things?

Final Thoughts

Alright, I realize that this post may seem condescending to some, ignorant to others, or stupid to a few more. But I actually am in all honesty, legitimately curious here. Especially because I know that western astrologers themselves are divided over whether to take into account precession.

Maybe it’s just the way I was trained in science — I think that if stuff moves, you move with it. It doesn’t make sense to me to use something as it was 2500 years ago when everything else has changed. To me, it seems the same as, say, starting to write on a piece of paper 15 minutes ago, and you still writing away in the same spot even though someone has moved the piece of paper far away from you. You’re just writing in air now.

And that’s why I feel justified in criticizing Ms. Nazon, and by proxy, all other astrologers who do not account for precession. She’s writing on air or her desk, not the paper that was there 15 minutes ago. The stars haven’t been where she says they are for thousands of years. Shouldn’t that matter?

June 9, 2010

Terry Nazon’s Astronomy: Just Plain Wrong


Introduction

I wanted to take a brief pause from writing lectures for the intro astronomy class I’m teaching (don’t worry guys, the one for tomorrow is already written!) and head down a different path for a few moments.

Some may consider me a glutton for punishment. Considering my recent run-in of being threatened by an astrologer, I’ve been following her a bit on Twitter to see what she’s up to in her astrological prognostications. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Get Your Astronomy Right!

Alright, I’ll say it to start off with to let everyone know where I stand: I do not “believe” in astrology. I trust the studies that have shown it no better than random guessing and that have shown it has no predictive power better than cold reading and self-reporting positive results for positive predictions. I don’t see any mechanism by which it could work, and none that have been proposed by astrologers actually have any physical validity unless they want to re-write the laws of physics.

That said, if you’re going to be an astrologer, AT LEAST GET YOUR ASTRONOMY RIGHT!!!

I honestly don’t know if this is common to most astrologers, or if it just happens to be Terry Nazon who is, well, I’ll be polite and just say apparently ignorant of astronomy and where stuff is in the sky. It’s a little hard to believe considering that astrology’s entire foundation is based on where stuff is in the sky, but, well, facts are facts.

I showed in my series on Nazon before (part 1, part 2, and part 3) that she is apparently fairly ignorant of where objects are in the actual sky, and this is seriously not a case where you just have to take my word for it. Go download any free astronomy sky-display software, look at a star chart yourself, or download a commercial or shareware software. You will be able to demonstrably see that what I stated in my previous series is accurate. (I’m not going to provide star charts this time unless asked for in Comments because I think it’s fairly redundant at this point … and because I need to write a homework set to hand out for tomorrow.)

What’s Going on This Time?

14 hours ago from the time of this writing, so I guess around 6AM MDT (mountain daylight time for those not in the US), Nazon tweeted, “Mercury enters Gemini it’s home placement. Expects things to start moving quickly….”

This intrigued me. I don’t know anything about Mercury’s “home placement,” but based on my experience on my previous series about Terry Nazon (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I wanted to check this. I was not disappointed. At the moment, Mercury is on the Aries side of Taurus, actually having just entered Taurus on June 5 (5 days ago as of writing this). It won’t be until very late in the day on June 25 (that’s in 15 days) that Mercury will enter Gemini. Interesting.

On Monday, so about 2 days ago, Nazon tweeted (and put on her Facebook page): “Mars the planet of action enters Virgo where it last transitied [sic] July 2008. Mars transit around the zodiac is about 2 1/2 yrs. The last time Mars was in Virgo Saturn had just begun it’s transit of Virgo too. Now the two meet up again as Saturn ends its transit through Virgo.”

Also interesting. I love conjunctions, they’re actually really cool to photograph. I showed a conjunction to my class yesterday of the five planets that the ancient civilizations knew about in a photo taken a few years ago. But anyway, back to the claim. I took a look, and yet again, Mars is not anywhere near Virgo. It’s on the Cancer side of Leo right now, though Virgo is on the other side, and Saturn is currently reasonably close to the Leo side of Virgo.

However, Mars moves through the sky much more slowly than Mercury. As a consequence, while Terry Nazon was about 2 weeks off for her Mercury prediction, she’s a full 40 days of for her Mars prognostication. Mars will not enter Virgo until July 19 (actually July 20 for about 1/3 of the world).

(As a side note, about a month later on August 12 there is a VERY cool conjunction between Mars, Venus, Saturn, a thin crescent moon, AND Mercury that will be visible early in the morning evening.)

About the other part of that claim — when Mars last transited (moved through) Virgo, it did so between August 8, 2008, and October 15, 2008. It started doing this reasonably close to Saturn, though that’s almost due to definition: Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes about 30 Earth years. From 1 Earth year to the next, or even 2 Earth years to the next two, Saturn is not going to move very far in the sky. So if Mars right now is near Saturn, then the last time Mars was in this location, it was also near Saturn. But, regardless, Nazon is yet again wrong on her dates.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m picking on low-hanging fruit. But this really does bug me a fair bit. In a different way than all the 2012 doomsday-sayers and young-Earth creationists. Astrologers claim that what they are doing is science. They base what they do on the motions of the planets, sun, moon, stars, and sometimes asteroids. The very least they could do is to get those motions and positions correct!

And yet again, I’ll use the refrain: If Nazon’s easy-to-see astronomy claims of where objects are when are so demonstrably wrong (and other astrologers who may be wrong like her), why should ANYONE pay the $75 an e-mail or up to $330 an hour for one of her “readings?” Heck, send me an e-mail and I’ll at least tell you where stuff is in the sky when. And I won’t charge you nearly that much.

June 2, 2010

Ah, the Joys of Stepping on Someone’s Toes: Terry Nazon Redux


Introduction

A few months ago, I wrote a 2-part post about the claims of astrologer Terry Nazon and her claims about 2012. I asked a fellow blogger (Johan), one who knows much more about archaeology than I, to do a third part for the series about her archaeology claims of the Mayans. He kindly obliged and you can read all three parts here: Part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I made a point that her many claims made on her website about the astronomy of 2012 were either (a) wrong, (b) meaningless, or (c) insignificant. Johan’s point in the third part was that her information about the Maya was (a) wrong and (b) reflected a fairly ethnocentric view on her part.

My point was to conclude that she (a) doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about from an astronomy nor archaeological point of view, and (b) if what she said could be shown to be so demonstrably wrong, why should someone pay her several hundred dollars for a phone call ($330 for an hour, or $75 for an e-mail reading)?

Edited to Add: On September 18, 2012, I got an e-mail from my thesis advisor and boss that Terry was planning on suing me for various things. I have updated this post accordingly, leaving the original language but making edits with strikes to indicate deletions and underlines to indicate additions. I also note that while I filed this under “scams,” this is my opinion based on her writings, it is not a statement of legal fact.

What’s Going On

Apparently rather than defending her claims, over the past 24 hours Johan and I have been receiving much spam and angry threats to both our blogs as well as through e-mail. The e-mails were almost certainly from Ms. Nazon, sent from the Comcast IP address 75.149.179.194 in Florida, the same as her area code on her website, and from her eponymous and Comcast-based e-mail address. The comments, attempted to be posted under various names, have also come from the same IP address.

It appears also as though she is now trying to pass herself off as me, posting under the name “astrostu206265″ (the ID I happened to choose when I started this blog due to a sort of “inside number” to astronomers of 206265), e-mail address “astrostu206265@yahoo.com” (which to my knowledge does not exist), and of course that IP address (75.149.179.194). She (apparently) has tried to do this on my blog and she has done this on others. I got an e-mail from The Godless Monster blog writer asking if I made the post to their blog under that IP address with the message:

“You are all a bunch of anonymous cowards who hide behind anonymous names and @anywhere emails…no one will listen to anywhos @anywhere.com s
fakes. cowards and phonies who must not believe what they write because they are ashamed to put there name and face to it…stand up cowards and be counted.”

That’s the same message she that person with that IP and that e-mail tried to post to my blog, twice. And she that person with that IP and that e-mail posted it to the comments section of “New Discoveries and Comments About Creationism” where I happened to post a comment or two.

The purpose of this post is to let fellow bloggers know – if they happen to do a search for “astrostu206265″ – what’s going on, and to block that IP address and similar messages if she that person with that IP and that e-mail moves computers.

Final Thoughts

I hadn’t really planned on making this whole thing public since I didn’t want to feed it, but I did want to make a quick public statement in an attempt to separate what she’s doing from my own actions. I’m in Colorado, my IP address starts with 67.161.x. Oh, and if anyone happens to know a way to have WordPress actually spoof my handle (astrostu206265) and make it appear as my actual name, let me know, ’cause I’ve been looking for that for awhile I’ve changed my handle here so WP displays it as my name.

I also noticed that, throughout this, she still has the wrong information (and type-os) on her website. And in case she does end up fixing it, I saved a copy of the page like all the sites I talk about as evidence that I wasn’t trying to make straw man arguments. She’s also still claiming that she is, “Terry Nazon, World Famous Celebrity Astrologer.” Interesting way for one of that status to act, assuming it was her.

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