What's my sign? Well, that's a long story ...

Precession of equinoxes means few are astrological symbol they think they are

Science

December 31, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Let's get one thing straight. I don't believe in astrology. But the daily horoscopes seem harmless enough back there with the funny pages, offering sensible, all-purpose advice.

For example, The Sun's syndicated astrologer recently urged those born under Pisces to "back up computer files, and make sure your cell phone battery is charged." No argument there.

That said, I confess that I can't wait until the next time somebody asks my astrological "sign." That's because I've been spending a lot of time with a computer program for backyard stargazers called Starry Night, published by Imaginova. It's a powerful tool for anyone curious about the night sky - like having Carl Sagan's ghost beside you on a magic-carpet tour of the night sky, and of all time and space.

I've discovered something deep inside this fascinating software that should kick the astrological legs out from under millions of believers. Although it probably won't.

First, those dates you see in the newspaper, bracketing each of the 12 astrological signs? They're all wrong. And, because of something called the "precession of the equinoxes," they've been getting more and more out-of-whack since about 600 BC, when the astrological system was concocted.

Second, because the dates are all wrong, almost nobody living today was actually born under the sign they think they were. Which means they've been reading - and taking - the wrong advice all their lives. No wonder the world is a mess!

Third, and this is the most delicious part, those of us born between Nov. 30 and Dec. 17 aren't Sagittarians, as we have always believed. We were born with the sun in the constellation - get this - Ophiuchus.

That's right: Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. It's pronounced Offy-YUK-us, and I had never heard of him either. No syndicated astrologer has ever offered a lick of advice to any of us Ophiuchans. But Starry Night displays his constellation big and bold, with his foot stuck right there between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

What does it mean to say the sun is "in" a constellation? Well, remember that the sun is always perched in the sky against a backdrop of stars and constellations. We can't see the stars in the daytime (except briefly during a solar eclipse) because the sun's too bright.

But we know the constellations are there. We can even see them in our night sky six months later, when the Earth has moved to the opposite side of the solar system.

Think of the setup as a circular room with 12 portraits hanging on the wall. Each painting represents a constellation of stars. The sun is at the center of the room. As we (Earth) orbit around it, the sun appears to move in the opposite direction relative to the portraits in the background. Over one year, the sun seems to move through the full circle of paintings - all 12 constellations of the zodiac.

Now I always believed I was born with the sun in Sagittarius (the guy with the bow and arrow). But it turns out, according to Starry Night, that nobody born on Dec. 10 has been a Sagittarian since 1582.

When I set Starry Night's controls for my birth date, Dec. 10, and run the years backward, the computer puts all the heavens in motion. I can watch the sun move slowly eastward each Dec. 10 until 1582, when it finally pops back into Sagittarius - where it had been since at least 600 BC.

Likewise, when I run the years forward from Dec. 10, 2004, the sun "precesses" - creeps slowly westward on the screen each Dec. 10 until the year 2770 or so, when it finally crosses from Ophiuchus into Scorpio (the scorpion).

Who knew? Have astrologers been keeping this secret for 2,000 years?

Not exactly. They're well aware of precession. And they're rolling with it.

"When empirical data begins to disagree with a belief system, we reach a moment ... where you're either going to go with the data or with what you believe," said Holiday Mathis, who writes The Sun's astrology feature.

Whether the western astrological zodiac matches up with the stars or not "is a moot point," she said. "The archetypes are only as meaningful as we attribute meaning to them. If they do not resonate inside of a person, then astrology is not for that person."

The western astrologers' zodiac starts in whatever constellation the sun happens to be in on the vernal equinox - the first day of spring. They simply call it Aries (the ram), and apply all of Aries' relevant influences to their recommendations - regardless of what constellation the sun is really in. But more on that in a minute.

According to Starry Night's "SkyGuide," the eminently readable text that serves as the user's guide and companion, the ancient astronomers who first formalized western astrology hadn't yet discovered "precession."

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