In the opening episode of National Geographic’s new television series, Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey, program host Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, author and science communicator, shares one of his pet theories. What separates mankind from other creatures on the planet is man’s unique ability to recognize patterns in nature, he suggests.
In a charitable spirit, Dr. Tyson urges his national television audience not to be too hard on those ancient observers who looked to the night sky for more than clues about when to plant crops or how to find one’s way on land or at sea. Given mankind’s penchant for pattern recognition, it’s understandable that our distant ancestors might get the idea that planetary patterns forming in the night sky were infused with significance and meaning. However, we now know what the stars and planets are made of and where comets come from. So it’s unseemly for moderns to entertain such ideas.
In Dr. Tyson’s narrative, science arrived to rescue humanity from the slagheap of medieval mysticism in the 16th century and has expanded our horizons exponentially since then. Today we know our place in the physical universe and it is infinitesimally small. There are an estimated 300 billion stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy, many much larger than our own bright sun. And there are trillions of galaxies similar to our own strung out on web-like filaments over unimaginable distances across the known universe.
There’s more. Beyond this, the astrophysicist reports there may be many other unseen parallel universes that coexist with our own in a so-called multiverse or meta universe. Purportedly, the unseen multiverse is comprised of everything that exists and can exist: the entirety of space, time, matter and energy as well as the physical laws and constants that describe them. One assumption is that the various parallel universes in the multiverse, if they exist at all, operate with different laws of physics. Most likely, we’ll never learn if this is true or not.
Suffice to say, scientists have learned a great deal more about the universe earthlings currently cohabit and it’s nothing like anyone envisioned at the start of the 20th century. We’re living in an age of discovery like no other with dazzling new space technologies opening our eyes to a dynamic, expanding universe that is constantly on the move and continually reinventing itself.
Out there in space are exploding stars, colliding galaxies and voracious black holes that inspire us to appreciate anew Isaac Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation. The fabric of space is pocked with the remnants of giant burned out stars (black holes) that were formed long ago when the self-same giant stars ran out of nuclear fuel and exploded as a supernova somewhere in space. Common and not-so-common chemical elements created in these explosions were blasted into space as star dust, which ultimately was collected and shaped by gravity into new stars and planets and everything else that can be found on our own and distant worlds.
All we are is stardust
Tyson tells us that the calcium in our bones, iron in our blood and all the other elements we know about were forged and fused in stellar explosions that occurred eons ago in far-flung reaches of the galaxy. All we are is stardust, he explains.
It’s hard to determine which is more remarkable: the fact we’re made of star stuff or the fact humanity had the ingenuity and genius to figure this out. Thanks to modern science we know the dynamic creative process on display in our expanding universe is not unlike the patterns of life, death and renewal scientists notice at every layer of existence. Stars are born, die and are recycled anew as part of a seemingly endless existential drama.
In addition to scattering stardust, when a giant star explodes its core collapses to form a powerful black hole. In these dead zones gravity is so extreme it overwhelms all other forces in the universe. So it is curtains for any near-by sun or stellar gas that strays within the black hole’s event horizon. The event horizon establishes a gravitational point of no return; what happens to whatever crosses the line is not reversible.
Tyson tells us there are an estimated 100 million menacing black holes in the Milky Way galaxy alone and an astronomical number residing elsewhere in the universe. He also mentions super-massive black holes that exist at the centers of every galaxy and weigh-in with masses ranging between hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses. It’s not clear which came first, the galaxies or the super-massive black holes. But their formation speaks to the stupefying enormity of creation.
This, in a way, is Dr. Tyson’s point in a nutshell. Now that we know the cosmological scale we’re dealing with it’s obvious how wrong some centuries-old cosmological notions must be. What the science communicator can’t seem to figure out is why these dated concepts are still hanging around and gaining currency in the current century? He seems to be genuinely concerned and embarrassed because the good news message about the wonderful achievements of science isn’t reaching and penetrating all ears.
A Different Perspective
Truth is, science and astrology are not mutually exclusive enterprises. People continue to visit astrologers in the modern era because they find the information gleaned to be useful or helpful in some way. And because there are moments when astrology’s mind-blowing accuracy impresses. It should be noted that astrologers, more than most, have benefited from the magnificent revolution in optics and imaging technologies that have revolutionized scientific exploration of the solar system. Uniquely, astrologers have been able to bring back to earth the practical fruits of technical astronomical labors
Since the discovery of Uranus in 1781 astrological sleuths in the western world have been on a mission to detect and discern the archetypal energies that apply to newly discovered worlds in the our solar system earth calls home. In the process that unfolds, astronomers discover distant celestial objects and members of the astrological community almost immediately begin an informal matching process that seeks to determine where the newcomer fits in the cosmic scheme. At the start, some intuitive guesswork is involved. But the actual investigative method used by astrologers might loosely qualify as an applied science. There’s a working hypothesis (suspected characteristics) and a network of astrologers observing and recognizing patterns and informally sharing insights on a global scale in all of the human event areas addressed by astrology.
Alas, for many in the scientific community some of the subjective investigative methods astrologers use to embroider their ideas don’t pass the sniff test. Modern scientists tend to envision themselves on the cutting edge of knowledge and, understandably, value forward leaning momentum. In the worldview blindly embraced, astrology is one of a number of things rational people should have outgrown. There’s no reason to go down this road because it’s obviously a dead end. Or so they say.
In his role as science communicator Tyson has never been especially kind to astrology or astrologers. He is, for example, the scientist who in one of his books was first to inform the public there are more than 12 astrological signs in the Zodiac. His idea was to mock astrologers as fools incapable of understanding how celestial mechanics work. However, all that was demonstrated with this ruse was the fact the celebrity scientist had not seriously studied the subject and confused stellar constellations with astrological signs. Twelve astrological signs have been the Ptolemaic standard since before the birth of Christ.
A Way Forward
Tyson and other critics of astrology tell the public that astrology has been scientifically tested and found wanting. However, there is glaring contrary evidence suggesting the science side has a lot of work to do before it can reasonably make such claims. To resolve the issue (somewhat) here’s a simple test fair-minded critics of astrology might try:
Make an appointment with a qualified professional astrologer and show up with a certified birth certificate that includes date, time, and place of birth. The brave souls who take this on should be prepared to provide the astrologer with the timing (date and place) for an event in their personal life that changed everything for them. It is the astrologer’s job to explain and describe how this important event was mirrored in the heavens at the time it occurred. If there’s anything to astrology, a truly life-changing event should be reflected in the alignments forming between transiting planets and the placement of planets in the critic’s birth map or horoscope. The actionable influences should be obvious to the astrologer and also to the fair-minded critic if properly explained.
Of course, this is not a proper scientific test. But the results might open a few closed eyes.
Actually, experiments like this go on all the time; astrological clients often test the process in this way. In his Cosmos TV series Tyson used several minutes of air time to describe an event that changed everything for him when he was a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, New York. Apparently, Tyson was an outstanding 17-year-old high school student whose academic promise earned him an invitation to meet astronomer Carl Sagan at his home and spend the afternoon visiting with him. At the time Sagan was host of the original Cosmos TV series. Three decades later Tyson still remembers the exact date of this meeting: December 20, 1975. And he shared this information with his 2014 television audience:
“I already knew I wanted to become a scientist,” Tyson told Cosmos viewers. “But that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”
An Internet bio provides October 5, 1958 as Tyson’s date of birth in New York City (no time given). Astrologer and author Anthony Louis observes that on this date transiting Pluto had advanced to the same degree of Libra where Mercury and the Sun reside in Tyson’s natal birth chart only seconds of arc apart in the 11th degree of the sign. When planets are aligned in the same zodiacal degree in a birth chart astrologers call this a conjunction. When a third planet joins the pair by transit a triple conjunction occurs; the transiting planet is said to infuse with or trigger the combination’s possibilities. There isn’t a scientific explanation for why this happens.
Louis explains that Pluto, the planet of life-altering transformation, is usually active at times when events occur that divide people’s lives into before and after sequences. An astrologer noticing this relative rare exact triple conjunction forming in Tyson’s birth map would advise him to anticipate a radically transformative experience affecting his sense of identity (Sun) and way of thinking (Mercury) during the time period indicated. Whether this combination indicates a beneficial or more challenging experience largely depends on how other planetary energies are involved at the time.
On the magical day Tyson shared the afternoon with Carl Sagan another transiting planet, Uranus, had advanced to form an exact conjunction with Jupiter’s placement in Tyson’s natal birth chart. Astrologers would read this as another indication of an extraordinary opportunity; Uranus is linked to cosmology and science and Jupiter with expansive optimism and hope. But, Louis says, Pluto is forming the more significant aspect on this day.
On the astronomy side Pluto has been downgraded and lumped with other dwarf planets in a separate category. In contrast, astrologers see the powerful and transformative planet as a solar system heavyweight and front man for a collection of Oort Cloud ice worlds that are poised to reveal what their impact on the human psyche will be.
Not everyone has the kind of memorable, life-altering experience Tyson described on his TV show. However, whenever the timing for a course-changing event is known, a competent astrologer will know where to look for clues and how to plausibly explain the coinciding astrological symbolism displayed in the heavens at the time.