“Please don’t tell any of my fellow astronomers, but I love astrologers. Really I do,” astronomer Mike Brown once declared in his quasi weekly column, Mike Brown’s Planets. But he swiftly raced to reassure readers that his romance with astrologers was purely platonic.
“Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no belief whatsoever in the proposition that the positions of planets or stars or moons or anything else that is moving across the sky has or ever had any sort of control over your life, your actions, or your choices. Zero. Really,” he claimed.
It’s fair to question whether the astronomer’s adamant disclaimer suggests he’s in denial or maybe looking to cover his backside with skeptical astronomical community pals. In fact, the conundrum appears to be more complex or complicated than that. Really.
Mike Brown’s love song warbles on: “If I don’t believe in what I must assume would have to be considered a central precept of astrology, how can I possibly claim to love the practitioners?” he asks. Parodying one of the most famous love poems in English literature (Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How do I Love Thee?) he succinctly answers his own question: “Let me count the ways.”
“Astrologers care about the sky and the positions of the stars and the moon. I care about the sky and the position of the stars and the moon. Astrologers try to understand patterns in the orbits and motions of the planets and determine their meaning. I try to understand patterns in the orbits and motions of the planets and determine their meaning. In a broad general sense we do many of the same things; it’s just that our methods are different,” he explains.
An Impressive Career
Brown is the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) wunderkind who used the modest equipment at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, Calif., to go on a planet hunting tear in the far reaches of the solar system. As a Wall Street Journal reporter put it, his discoveries “provoked chaos within astronomy circles, calling into question the very meaning of the word planet.”
In his best-selling memoir, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, the astronomer described the events that culminated in Pluto being kicked-out of the planetary system’s inner circle and added to the growing family of so-called dwarf planets, most of which orbit the sun at distances well beyond the orbit of Neptune. On this list are Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Quaoar, Vanuna, Ixon, Sedna and the nameless orphan known only as TNO 2002 TC 302.
And this, we’re told, may only be the tip of the iceberg.
In 2006, Brown was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He has written more than 100 scientific papers and was awarded the Urey Prize for the best young planetary scientist by the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences. He also received the Richard P. Feynman Award for Outstanding Teaching and appears to be on a professional quest to either teach his peers better manners or assuage their fears. Maybe both.
In the column he titled I Love Astrologers, Brown makes the point that astrology and astronomy are brothers “with roots deeper than just the first five letters. Until perhaps the Enlightenment the brothers were inseparable. Copernicus, who made one of the greatest conceptual leaps in human history, pulling the earth out of the center of the universe and replacing it with the sun, was a dedicated astrologer, calculating astrological charts with as much fervor and trying to understand the paths of the planets.”
Brown says it’s not hard to understand why Copernicus would feel that some connection should be there. “I don’t think anyone can watch the movements of the planets and sun and moon and not somehow get a gut feeling that there is somehow meaning in all of that beauty, precision and symmetry.”
“From their common upbringing, the brothers split in adulthood. They each retained their common interest in the sky, but with thoroughly different ways of looking at it. Astronomy moved to the purely objective realm of descriptive and predictive reality. It moved to science. And a wondrous science it is.”
The Case For Astronomy
“I can go outside tonight and look up to see the bright glowing star Betelgeuse, the red orb in the upper corner of constellation Orion, and I can tell you a pretty good version of the entire story of its birth in a cloud of gas and dust, its long existence as a smaller and cooler star with hydrogen atoms fusing together in the deep interior, and its recent expansion to form a ball of gas the size of the orbit of Mars,” Brown says, adding:
“That we’ve been able to determine this story at all, simply from looking at the feeble light from these little points in the sky, is as improbable as it is incredible. When I see Betelgeuse at night and stop to think these thoughts I am left in awe.”
So what can astrology offer that even comes close to matching?
Apparently nothing that might change the astronomer’s mind. But this doesn’t mean astrology is worthless or potentially dangerous as some would have us believe, he says.
“Astrology is the brother who kept the fascination with the sky, but rather than growing an interest in science kept its interest in humanity. Scientific astronomy, for all its awe-inspiring, mind-expanding and just simply amazing discoveries leaves people and their consciousness out of the picture.
“Astronomy involves people looking up at the heavens, but the heavens are never looking back. Astrology, in contrast, never removed that connection between the sky and the people.”
Brown says he can see no reason why a ball of rock and ice so far from the earth would affect all humanity. And he questions the efficacy of reading psychological meanings into the mythological names astronomers arbitrarily give to newly discovered celestial bodies.
But astronomy and astrology are brothers, he insists.
“Brothers don’t always do the same things or make the same choices. But when they maintain their initial ties to where they came from, their connection cannot help but stay strong. What is not to love?” he asks.
Astrologers aren’t accustomed to having their discipline so passionately defended by learned men of science. More often, the expectation is that more loquacious members of the astronomical community will proffer their usual churlish comments that ignore the past and disparage a group they know little about. In contrast, Brown is a decent, fair-minded scientist who, in the past, has been willing to share information about his work with astrologers.
“The astrologers who occasionally correspond with me love to hear about new solar system discoveries, figure out orbital relationships and patterns, and speculate about what else might be out there and how everything fits together,” he points out.
Researching Distant Sedna
In a recent issue of The Mountain Astrologer magazine astrologer Barbara Schermer described her newest research project. Brown, she says, politely answered some of her technical questions and also provided accurate birth data (time, date and place) for himself and for the exact moment when he and colleagues discovered Sedna, the most distant dwarf planet known to be orbiting the sun in our solar system some 8 billion miles from earth. The exact time of discovery is not all that important to astronomers unless an argument over bragging rights erupts. But precise timing provides important clues for astrologers, Schermer says.
The honor of naming a new planetary body is traditionally given to those who discover it. Although Brown and colleagues admittedly find it hard to believe that distant planetoids can influence real events on earth in any way, they nevertheless embraced the tradition of naming celestial bodies for mythological entities – because this practice gives the celestial object “a story.”
“Our newly discovered object is the coldest, most distant place known in the solar system, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid arctic ocean,” Brown explained at the time his discovery was submitted to the International Astronomical Union.
According to Schermer, most astrologers would agree (and astronomers would not!) that when naming an object astronomers “are participating in an event of archetypal manifestation that introduces new gods upon the stage of human drama.” While it’s extremely difficult for scientists to get cozy with such a magical worldview, it’s equally hard for astrologers to cave on the fundamental idea that, as Brown so colorfully puts it, the heavens are in fact “looking back.”
The dichotomous nature of these positions isn’t likely to change for awhile. In the meantime, while we await the next paradigm shift, Brown’s thoughtful and congenial dialog is both constructive and helpful while exhibiting rare leadership qualities.
Schermer would argue there’s ample observable evidence supporting the astrology side. “As planetary entities are named and their stories located in myth, astrologers pick up on the narrative. Astrological ephemerides are generated and published and astrologers begin to ‘unpack‘ the meanings of the symbols generated and study the many stories created by the myth.
“Astrologers may empirically research the planet’s transits through their own lives or observe cultural and historic events in apparent synchrony with the planet’s positions. Or we may analyze the charts of individuals who have that planet prominent in their own birth chart,” she says.
Schermer believes her research demonstrates that, over the past 140 years, Sedna has presented a consistent ecological or environmental message. The working hypothesis for her study: “Sedna represents a new and powerful voice calling us to a balanced and sustainable relationship with nature.”
In addition to Sedna’s discovery chart, Schermer analyzed the birth charts of individuals with a known passion for protecting the environment, such as Jacques Cousteau and Rachel Carson. She also studied the astrological charts of organizations like the Sierra Club, and release dates for films like Whalerider. Because he is a member of the Sierra Club, Mike Brown’s birth chart was included in the data pool as well.
The astrologer found Sedna prominently placed in each of the charts she analyzed and was able to conclude that the dwarf planet’s mission “is to promote interdependence, balance, beauty, transcendence, humility, prosperity, ethical purpose, hope and the resolve to renew the Earth and all its creatures in light of these values.”
Although Sedna was only recently discovered, Schermer says the frigid planet “has been speaking for generations through history, traditional wisdom, prophetic declamation, climatic spasm, scientific discovery, spiritual insight and dawning social awareness,”
The Mountain Astrologer article describing her research can be read here.