Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 30, 2014

My First Infographic: What Have Our Planetary Space Probes Photographed Since 1970?


This has been over two months in the making: I’m finally releasing my first infographic. It’s entitled, “Planets and Major Moons: Distribution of Non-Lander Spacecraft Photos Since 1970.” (Suitable for printing on A-size paper with a bit of top and bottom margin to spare.) The purpose is to show the number of images taken by different space probes of the planets (and major satellites), the percentage of the total images that were for each body, and for each body, the percentage taken by each different spacecraft.

PDF Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (3.5 MB)
PNG Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (4.7 MB)

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Development Process

I’ve been wanting to create infographics for awhile. Really good ones are few and far between, especially for astronomy, but the good ones are often amazing works of art. I don’t pretend that this is an amazing work of art, but hopefully it’s not ugly.

To me, the key is to have a lot of information crammed into a small space in an easy-to-understand way that you don’t have to be an expert to interpret. In my work, I deal a lot with multi-dimensional datasets and so already I have to come up with ways of displaying a lot of information in as few figures as possible and yet still make them readable.

The Idea

An idea that I came up with is based on the claim that “NASA hides all its pictures!” (This is often, hypocritically, almost immediately followed up with NASA spacecraft imagery showing claimed UFOs and other pseudoscientific claims.)

And so, I wanted to investigate this: How many images really have been taken and are available publicly, for free, on the internet? After several days of research, I had the results, and I assembled them into the above infographic.

The Numbers

I was surprised by some of the numbers and I was not surprised by others. One thing that did not surprise me was that the outer planets have very few photographs (relatively speaking) of them, while most imagery has focused on Mars and the Moon (fully 86%).

But, I was not prepared for how very few photographs were taken by our early probes to the outer solar system. Pioneers 10 and 11 were the first craft to venture out, and yet, because of the (now) archaic method of imaging and slow bandwidth, they collectively took a mere 72 images of both Jupiter and Saturn. Compare that with the ongoing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the moon, which has publicly released over 1.1 million images.

You can also see the marked effect of the Galileo high-gain antenna failure: Only 7.4% of the photos we have of Jupiter were taken by Galileo, despite it being an orbiter in the 1990s. Compare that with the Cassini orbiter of Saturn, which has returned nearly 50 times as many images, despite no dramatic change in technology between the two craft. This means that only 0.4% of our images of planets and moons are of Jupiter, while 1.9% are of Saturn.

You can also see the marked success of modern spacecraft and the huge volumes of images that (I repeat) are publicly available. The pie slices in the infographic are color-coded by approximate spacecraft operation era. Well over 90% of all images were taken after 1995, and the current suite of the latest NASA spacecraft (MESSENGER around Mercury, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the Moon, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter around Mars) account for a sizable fraction of the returned data for that body — especially MESSENGER, which accounts for 98.1% of all Mercury images.

What was I most surprised by? The Clementine mission to the moon. It returned and has publicly archived just shy of 1.5 million images of the lunar surface. I expected the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to have surpassed that. And, it still may, as it continues to operate and return data. We shall see.

Why the Conspiracy Theorists Are Wrong

As I said, one of the primary reasons I made this was to investigate the claim by conspiracy theorists that these space agencies hide photographs. The blame rests almost entirely on NASA by most conspiracists’ accounts. This infographic proves them wrong in two significant ways.

First, at least for the Moon, Mars, and Venus, sizable numbers of images have been taken by and publicly released by non-NASA sources. I specifically have data from the European Space Agency (SMART-1, Venus Express, and Mars Express), and Japanese Space Agency (SELENE / Kaguya). While both the Indian and Chinese space agencies have also sent spacecraft to the moon and Mars (Mars for the Indians with the recently-in-orbit “MOM” craft), and Russia has sent craft to Venus, Moon, and Mars, I could not find the public repositories – if they exist – for these missions. Therefore, I could not include them. But, a lack of those two does not affect the overall point, that non-NASA agencies have released photos of these bodies.

Second, as I’ve repeated throughout this post, these are the publicly released images. Not private. Public. To public archives. In the bottom-left corner, I have the sources for all of these numbers. (Please note that they were compiled in late October and may have increased a bit for ongoing missions — I’ll update periodically, as necessary.)

The total number of lunar images? About 3 million.

Mars? Around 1.6 million. Venus? Over 350,000. Mercury? Over 210,000.

It’s hard to claim that NASA hides lots of images when these numbers are staring you in the face.

What Conspiracists Could Still Claim

I think the only “out” at this point, given this information (and if they acknowledge this information), is for conspiracists to claim that NASA and other space agencies simply obfuscate the “interesting” stuff. I suppose that’s possible, though they’d need armies of people to do it on the millions of returned images. And they apparently do a pretty bad job considering all the images that conspiracists post, claiming that features within them are of alien-origin.

It’s amazing how the “powers that be” are so powerful, and yet so sloppy. Apparently.

What This Infographic Does Not Show

I had to decide to clip a lot of information. We’ve imaged a lot of asteroids and a lot of comets. Those are out. We have had landers on the three closest bodies (Moon, Mars, Venus). Those images were not included.

Also, I focused on visible-light images, mostly. There are some instruments that take more UV images, or far-IR images, or various other wavelengths, but this infographic focused on the visible or near-visible light camera data.

Pretty much the only exception to this is for the Magellan mission at Venus, which took radar swaths of the planet to “image” the surface. I included this because, in early test audiences, I did not have Venus at all, and they requested it. Then, I did not include Magellan, but the test audiences wondered what happened to it. Describing why that data was not present made things wordy and more cluttered, so I, in the end, simply included it and put a footnote explaining the Magellan data.

This also fails to show the volume of data as measured by or approximated by (for the older craft) pixel count. If I were doing this by amount of pixels returned, the Moon and Mars would be far larger in comparison, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be much larger fractions of their respective bodies.

Final Thoughts

I’m releasing this under the Creative Commons license with attribution required, non-commercial distribution, and no derivative works (please see the CC stamp at the bottom of the infographic). This is so that I can at least have some semblance of version control (see release date at lower right).

I hope you find it useful and interesting. And at least somewhat purdy. If you like it, share it.

December 1, 2014

Podcast Episode 121: James McCanney’s Views on Other Stuff in the Universe, Part 2

Some random claims based on
Electric Universe thinking
By James McCanney.

The long-awaited sequel to the critically-acclaimed (ha!) first part on James McCanney’s ideas about stuff. As I said last time, I’ve wanted to talk about James McCanney’s ideas ever since I heard him on Coast to Coast AM, and doing so isn’t hard — he’s been on the show dozens of times over the last two decades. I’ve heard him talk about a lot of things, but I mostly remembered him sounding like a broken record talking about how comets “discharge the solar capacitor.” This episode gets at many of his other ideas, though there are still many others and I reserve the right to do a Part 3 in the future.

Because this episode runs nearly 55 minutes, the only additional segment is two New News items (one sent in by Graham and the other by Callum (@ApproxPurified). Also, I plan on the next episode to be about conspiracies surrounding the Rosetta mission and its now host comet, so if you happen to see something relevant, please let me know before December 12, 2014.

P.S. My internet connection is being flaky — please let me know if you have issues downloading this episode or getting it to show up in iTunes or another RSS reader.

January 16, 2013

Podcast Episode 61: Special Pleading with Large Impacts

A complaint I’ve heard is that the invoking of giant asteroid impacts to explain some odd solar system features (Venus upside-down, Uranus on its side, etc.) is just special pleading and as crazy if not more so than the pseudoscience ideas, like Velikovsky. While I obviously have my own opinion about Velikovsky in particular, I wanted to take an episode to talk about why giant impacts are used to explain some things, and whether we have a real reason to do so or if it’s just our own way of making stuff up.

There isn’t a new puzzler, though the one from last episode – send in your favorite planetary pareidolia – is still going on.

December 15, 2012

Nostradamus and 2012: Some Internet Folks Get Punk’d


Among the modern “scientific skeptics” movement – which is already small – I count myself (in the least arrogant way possible) among the even smaller subset who are actual career scientists. Being in that sub-set, a not uncommon question is: If you had no morals, what kind of scam would you perpetrate?

As in, if I wanted to go out and be on Oprah and Motel and Coast to Coast and sell hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions of dollars?) worth of pseudoscientific crap, what kind of crap would I shovel out to the masses?

To say that I haven’t thought about it would be lying. To say that I haven’t thought to try a social experiment would be lying. But this April, I unwittingly did just that.

April Fools

Some of you may remember my April Fools post for 2012: “New Nostradamus Quatrain for 2012 Discovered.” The idea was that people keep making up new things that Nostradamus “said,” after some event, and then claim it applied to that event. This happened with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. And, as also happened with that attack, people “reinterpret” quatrains that Nostradamus actually did write in order to fit them to the event.

In that spirit, I wrote my post about a “newly discovered” quatrain. And of course, tied it very obviously to the 2012 doomsday stuff. I even posted it on April 4, but I set the date back in WordPress so that it appears I posted it on April 1. People started posting in the comments pretty quickly and sniffed it out as an obvious prank.

And that was that.

December 2012

Fast-forward to the last week or two. WordPress is neat in that it tells you what people have searched for in search engines to get them to your blog. Usually, the top terms have something to do with Planet X or December 21, 2012. For a very brief few days about two weeks ago, the top term was “Glynis McCants fraud” — for which my blog is still among the top ten, and was briefly #2, in Google search results for that term.

But, for the last week, and indeed, now looking at the stats, for the past quarter (3 months), the top term outpacing all others by nearly a factor of 2 is “nostradamus quatrains 2012.” Ooops.

Search Terms for Blog Hits, 4th Quarter 2012

Search Terms for Blog Hits, 4th Quarter 2012


A few days ago, I added this disclaimer to my April Fools post:

Edited to Add (Dec. 09, 2012): Okay folks, one of the top search engine directs I’m getting to my blog is for stuff along the lines of “nostradamus quatrain 2012″ and folks are getting this post. Let me be clear: THIS WAS AN APRIL FOOLS POST. That is all. Now, on with the show …

Still on Forums

As of this writing, people on three different forums have picked upon this and are treating it as a genuine Nostradamus quatrain. One is a “Topix” forum, another is on a forum for people who own the Dodge Challenger (a car), and the third is Aantares.com forum. Intriguingly, none of them are cited, though the first two quote more of my post than just the quatrain I made up.

In fact, the last one made it up even more than I did. The poster took the first two lines that I wrote and then made up the last two lines.

Final Thoughts

Is this of large impact? No, of course not. Three people on random forums taking it and quoting me and thinking it was genuine does not a big issue make. And hopefully with this post, too, people coming to this blog will realize that there’s nothing to fear.

But, the fact that the most hits to my blog these days – and now every day for the past nearly two weeks – are for Nostradamus quatrains relating to 2012 … well, it does say something about the state of critical thinking in our society.

Exactly what does it say? Well, I know the answer, but if I told you, then you wouldn’t be thinking for yourself …


WordPress has just informed me that this has been my 300th post. That’s an average of 5.3 days between posts for the last 4 years 4 months I’ve been blogging. Not horrible, though not great, I suppose.

August 2, 2012

Podcast Episode 46: Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”

The many times requested episode on Immanuel Velikovsky has arrived, and it’s arrived for the first anniversary of my podcast. Yup, the first episode, on the “dark side” of the moon, came out August 1, 2011. Hard to believe that it’s been a year.

This episode’s main segment is over 20 minutes long, and yet it’s an incredibly abridged episode discussing a distillation of his ideas from “Worlds in Collision,” his first book. I go over some of Velikovsky’s bio, the politics surrounding him when he introduced his book in 1950, and then a few of the lines of evidence he used plus several refutations of his argument.

This episode may seem a tad preachy at some points. It’s hard when talking about Velikovsky to address his evidence because there really is none for his claims, so I used it to discuss how one should and should not go about science, and how Velikovsky failed at it. Rather than using available observations and making his ideas, and then forming testable predictions from them, he instead threw out most branches of science and relied on scattered myths throughout the world for his evidence. Sorry, that ain’t how it’s done.

As the first anniversary episode, I go over some obligatory stats at the end. I’m relying on all of you to increase them for August 1, 2013. :)

June 19, 2012

World Famous Astrologer Terry Nazon Redux: Word Salad of Wrongly Used Astronomy Terms with New Age Thrown In


It’s been a long time since I wrote about “Terry Nazon World Famous Celebrity Astrologer.” I was bored last night when I should have been either weight lifting or going to bed, and I happened across her blog. I was scrolling through to see if there was any “real” astronomy in there and came across her, “Venus Retrograde The Anatomy of a Retrograde” post from May 15, 2012.


First, Grammar

In the past when I’ve written about Ms. Nazon, I’ve made minor points about her grammar. It’s atrocious. Seriously. Anyone who is a professional (as Ms. Nazon seems to be considering that she now charges $400 to talk with her per hour) should have better grammar than she.

Throughout this post, I’m going to pick apart her three-paragraph “Venus Retrograde…” post. I’m going to be quoting verbatim a lot. Please keep in mind that these are copy-pastes and I’m not trying to make her look more ridiculous than she already is by altering her words.

What Is Retrograde Motion?

Literally, the term “retrograde” means “to go against” or “to go backwards.” Throughout the day, objects in the sky appear to move from East to West. Throughout the year, the stars seem to move just a bit faster than the sun. This means that, relative to the stars, the sun appears to travel from West to East over the course of many days.

When planets also appear to move from West to East relative to the stars over many nights, they are traveling with the sun, and so are going “prograde.” When planets move from East to West relative to the stars over many nights, they are moving “retrograde” because it’s against the motion of the sun over many days/nights.

The why of why planets will go from prograde to retrograde and back again after many months is a story that took thousands of years to figure out and was one of the main lines of evidence for heliocentrism and against geocentrism.

I really don’t want to go too much into the “why this happens” part here as I think this is going to be a long post; instead, I’ll refer you to this short animation that I made that shows a line of observation from Earth, through Mars, projected onto the stars, and the path it draws. If you look at that, then keep in mind as a basic explanation, “It’s because we ‘catch up and pass’ a planet in its orbit,” it should make some sense.

Paragraph The First

“As your horoscope week begins the planet of Love, romance, and wealth, Venus goes retrograde until June 27th. Venus typically retrogrades every about every year or 18 months, depending on its transit.”

The first sentence is surprisingly correct with regards to when Venus returns to prograde motion. The second is generally correct with how often it switches, and I’m assuming that her term “transit” is an astrology term; it doesn’t mean anything astronomically considering that the next Venus transit across the sun isn’t until 2117.

“Everyone who studies astrology tries to understand the movements of the planets and pierce understand their transits through the signs. How we see them from our perspective here on planet Earth, is sometimes quite different from what is actually happening, our perspective is skewed here on earth.”

This is Nazon’s way of setting up for why retrogrades are important, and apparently that importance helps us to “pierce understand” them.

“Retrogrades are special times when the planets appear to us from our vantage point of Earth to be moving backwards. They aren’t really. Mercury will not be transiting backwards, nor will any of the other planets. They will only appear to be moving backwards due to its position in orbit and it’s relation to the Earth …”

So far, we’re still generally okay, though the English language has suffered a bit.

“… as it moves away from the planet Earth in its orbit.”

I thought at this point that she was sort of correct, and I was going to give her the benefit of the doubt. That was until I saw the next three sentences:

“The farther an object is from us the slower it appears to be moving, it’s that simple. An object really far away appears to be moving backwards. Space and time affect our perception.”

Alright, this first sentence is true IF the object is moving at the same speed. Otherwise, all bets are off. An airplane 5 miles above me is going to move faster than the bird 20 feet above me.

The second sentence makes absolutely no sense. No sense whatsoever. It seems as though she’s extrapolating a linear relationship that stuff moves far away so it moves slower, so if it moves really far it will eventually slow down and move backwards? Um, huh!?

Paragraph The Second

“Science has proven that there is a difference in the influence of a planet when moving toward the Earth (or direct) and moving away from the Earth or retrograde.”

No. First off, “science” has never shown any influence whatsoever (astrology-wise) of other planets on Earth regardless of their position or movement in space. Since “science” has not done so, it also cannot show a difference between nothing and nothing for how that planet may be moving.

“This difference is called Red Shift.”

Cue George Takei: “Oh my.”

Ms. Nazon is confusing apparent motion across (as in “back-and-forth”) our sky with a real physical motion towards or away from us, which is red shift and blue shift. Read the link if you don’t know what these are, but suffice to say for the purposes of this post, these are nothing alike. They have nothing to do with each other whatsoever. What she basically said is, “The difference between a flute and a piccolo is tomato bisque.”

“When a planet is receding, or moving away it appears to be retrograde, the color of the light it gives off changes. It does in fact have a different measurable speed and different light spectrum. This is called Red Shift.”

As my animation example shows, Mars was moving prograde until its closest approach with Earth, at which point Earth “passed” it and Mars’ motion became retrograde. Earth was moving away from it for awhile and it was retrograde, and Earth continued to move away and it flipped to prograde. Not possible under Ms. Nazon’s misunderstanding.

I interpret these three sentences as Ms. Nazon’s misunderstanding of what’s going on and using the general astronomy terms in a “word salad,” going into overdrive. Now, she is technically correct when she says that there would be a measurable redshift as the relative velocities between Earth and another planet increase. That difference is minuscule, however, and you get a bigger difference in redshift/blueshift light from opposite limbs of the sun (since the sun rotates, the limb coming towards us is slightly blueshifted, the limb going away is slightly redshifted).

“When a planet is retrograde its influence is subnormal. Retrogrades makes the normal influence of any planet weak.”

This is just astrology-speak mumbo jumbo. I have no other comment.

Paragraph The Third

“Venus retrograde produces red spectrum lines and its influence is the antithesis or the exact opposite of Venus direct, its influence is more like Mars. Normally Venus produces a violet light. When retrograde a red spectrum light like Mars.”

As I already explained above, apparent motion back-and-forth through the sky has nothing to do with its physical motion towards or away from us. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. גאָרנישט. 何も. 没什么. Inget. (Yay Google Translate!)

That said, every object in the solar system radiates every color of light, by definition of how radiation works. Planets radiate more in the infrared because they’re cooler than the sun. Planets also reflect light, and a lot of that is in the visible. Venus’ cloud layers are mostly made of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Being a molecule, carbon dioxide has a complicated emission/absorption spectrum, but it is heavy in the infrared (which is why it’s a greenhouse gas). What makes Venus appear yellow-whitish-orange is a sulfuric acid haze in the atmosphere. If Venus’ relative motion towards/away to/from Earth really caused it to have a significant red/blue shift, then everyone would notice this. ‘Cause, well, it would appear visibly redder or bluer. It doesn’t.

I’m really amazed at how some very basic observations that “everybody” knows or can make somehow manage to get by a “World Famous Celebrity Astrologer” such as Ms. Nazon who charges $100 to talk with her for 15 minutes.

“The give and take of Venus is undermined now and many will feel they have to do more or give more to receive love, recognition, or attention. Nothing comes easy under Venus retrograde and the concept of “what’s in it for me” is always prevalent.”

And we end with more astrology stuff.

Final Thoughts

I almost didn’t do a blog post about this, then I changed my mind. I haven’t ever really addressed the “word salad” idea with regards to pseudoscience claims on this blog, except perhaps with quantum mechanics.

Ms. Nazon’s blog (and other writings) is a good example of this idea: Take some science-sounding words, add a heaping spoonful of new age, whisk vigorously until foamy, and then pour on baking sheet. Bake at 250°F for 15 minutes until half-done, then chop up and post your half-baked ideas online.

June 13, 2012

The Amazing Transit of Venus Proves My New Transdimensional HyperPhysics Theory

Filed under: humor — Stuart Robbins @ 5:39 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Now Hear This!!

For those who don’t know ’cause they were living inside the spaceship that is Phobos, Venus transited across the face of the sun last week on June 5 or 6, depending on which time zone you’re in. A prediction of my Transdimensional HyperPhysics theory – which is based on Soviet-era research in the USSR that Western so-called “scientists” refuse to talk about – is that something wonderful would happen during this event.

To be more explicit, I have a pendulum. Pendulums should swing at a steady rate that is only based on the length of the pendulum and the gravity field its in. A Foucault Pendulum is a special kind of pendulum that proves Earth rotates, and again, the period is only dependent on the length and local gravity.

Except in my Transdimensional HyperPhysics model. My theory, again, based on REAL research carried out in Soviet labs, predicts that pendulums will be have weirdly during transits like this.

Ancient civilizations were much more intelligent than us, and they knew of this physics and built their sacred spots in places where this physics manifests on Earth. The Four Corners area of the US southwest (named because it’s where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah all meet at one corner) is one of these special places on Earth where this Transdimensional HyperPhysics energy manifests extra-strong.

So I went there with my “its complicated” person in the Exposing PseudoAstronomy-mobile. And I took along my trusty pendulum that has been thoroughly tested by top scientists to be accurate to the microsecond in its period and the size of its swing. I had this hooked up to an angle sensor that fed data into my laptop computer so that I could measure exactly the size of the swing and exactly how long it took.

My “it’s complicated” and I set up camp at the Four Corners so we could test my Transdimensional HyperPhysics theory. And the results are AMAZING! See for yourself:

Venus Transit Data

Venus Transit Data that Proves Transdimensional HyperPhysics

I started measuring 15 minutes before the transit and continued for another two hours. As you can see, as soon as the transit starts, something wonderful happened to the pendulum where both the period and the amplitude changed!!! And during the transit, with roughly the time it took Venus to move its diameter across the sun, there was a weird amplitude shift and the period was still faster!!

Since the length of my pendulum didn’t change, that means that the gravity field did and/or the basic laws of physics that Western establishment “scientists” think are right are WRONG!!

Whereas, all predictions made by my Transdimensional HyperPhysics that says that extra dimensional energy gets pumped into things like pendulums during stuff like this!


April 1, 2012

New Nostradamus Quatrain for 2012 Discovered

Edited to Add (Dec. 09, 2012): Okay folks, one of the top search engine directs I’m getting to my blog is for stuff along the lines of “nostradamus quatrain 2012″ and folks are getting this post. Let me be clear: THIS WAS AN APRIL FOOLS POST. That is all. Now, on with the show …


I usually don’t pay any heed to alleged prophecies or stuff like that, and I have written extensively about the 2012 stuff that won’t happen, but I was just made aware of this quatrain of Nostradamus that talks about 2012 and is uncannily foretelling:

In the year the sun shows his phases
And the second planet eclipses the brightest star,
The grand empire’s calendar foretells
The secret death of the world.

Now, as an astronomer, I found this particularly interesting. The first line seems crazy – the sun can’t show phases because it’s a star and is always “lit” relative to, well, any vantage point. But … during a solar eclipse, when the moon starts to cover it, it does sorta look like the sun is going through different phases. There’s a total solar eclipse in May 2012.

The second line also seems interesting. The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius, which is at a declination of -16° 43′, meaning that Venus could never eclipse it – pass in front of it. But, then I remembered a joke that we sometimes play on people. Ask someone on the street what the brightest star in the sky is, and most won’t know and they’ll throw out random guesses. The answer, of course, is the sun! (This also works for the closest star, though most will guess proxima Centauri.) And, in June 2012, Venus passes in front of the Sun as viewed from Earth, an event that won’t happen again for over 100 years.

So we have two lines that seem to uncannily point towards 2012. The third one, if we want to go with 2012, seems to point towards the Mayan calendar, though one could argue about how “grand” the Mayan civilization was. After all, they let themselves be destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors.

And then there’s the fourth line (I did mention this was a quatrain, right?). Doom and gloom in 2012? Kinda raises goosebumps on your skin, even if you don’t believe in 2012 stuff. After all, how could a guy writing in the 1500s know about this?

January 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 19: John Lear (and Some of His Claims)

The long-delayed episode 19 is now posted: John Lear. John is the son of the famous inventor of the Lear Jet but just kinda threw out all credibility when he bought into … UFOs, aliens, cities on the Moon and Mars and Venus and Mercury and Pluto and Neptune etc., a soul catcher on the moon, the Kennedy conspiracy, 9/11 “truth,” crop circles, and many other things – those are just naming a few.

In the episode – which may be a Part 1 if people want more (comments people, feedback people!) – I talk about three of his claims: The atmosphere of Venus, the atmosphere of the moon, and lunar formation. I also spend a fair amount of time finally getting into details about pareidolia, including a short spelling lesson.

Also what bears announcing is that I now have a Facebook page for the podcast (and blog). And, I now have a Twitter account for the podcast/blog: @PseudoAstro .

June 20, 2010

Astrology vs. Astronomy: What Coordinate System to Use?


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?

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