Hot Tub Astronomy: What is Your Sign May10


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Hot Tub Astronomy: What is Your Sign

This article was published in SKY AND TELESCOPE magazine in the May 1988 issue.

At the same time TIME magazine had a cover story May 16,1988 featuring First Lady, Nancy Reagan, called “Astrology in the White House.” As both magazines were on the stands together, I took a double interest in this story from White House chief of staff, Donald Regan because of my own “What is Your Sign?” and because I had just completed my Nancy Reagan Doll for the collection of 19 inch china dolls. I had been working for years and years on First Lady dolls, each dressed in a tiny copy of the dresses featured in the “First Lady” collection in the Smithsonian Institution. So I tucked an issue of “Time” in with my First Lady reference books, used to write about each lady as I worked on her porcelain replica. And I added another with my Astronomy stuff. This story will explain why.


I’ll bet there’s not an astronomer alive who wouldn’t like to have a clear night for every time he or she has heard that one.
Astrology! how could anyone be idiot enough to mix that up with Astronomy? Yet it happens again and again. I remember the first time I heard the two confused. My husband Bob and I were sitting in a steaming hot tub at a ski lodge high in the Sierra Nevadas. We were treating ourselves to a vacation planned to consist of glorious sunny days of sking followed by crisp clear nights of star gazing. At first the strangers sharing the huge tub with us spoke only of the days skiing. Then slowly they settled back to relax sore muscles and get to know one another. The steadily rising steam fogged the pool area and obscured the night sky. Even if it had not, the many unshielded lights flooding the lodge grounds would have squelched the possibility of observing nearby. “So much for astronomy tonight.” I said quietly, seeing that my partner was too exhausted to drive out of the area in search of darker skies. “Oh, are you two into astronomy too?” squealed the pretty blonde sitting next to Bob. “What a coincidence! So are we,” she giggled, tugging on the hand of the young man beside her. “I’m a Libra, and Jeff’s Gemini. What’s your sign?” Using all the ettiquette instilled in me by my determined parents, I managed not to show my dismay at the childish error. I simply smiled politly and replied, “I’m an Aries.” When it came to astrology I knew little else. That didn’t really matter though because the rest of the group perked up and rallied around the question. I didn’t need to say another word, only listen with indignant facination as a discussio.n about the professed personality traits of the various zodiacal signs transformed the former stranger’s dispositions from happy to serious to downright silly.

Several months later I had a humbling experience that both helped me to understand the confusion between astronomy and astrology and gave me the resolve to meet it head on when next I encountered it. As a student of history, I collect old books, largely Presidential wives for the reason mentioned . One day I came home with a coffee table size book on the history of astronomy filled with gorgeous, glossy color prints of astronomical art and gilded star maps. As I pored over a series of quaint old drawings of constellations framed with strange, colorful creatures, Bob walked in and glanced at me with surprise “That’s a strange choice of reading.” he exclaimed. “A history of astronomy? Why?” I answered. “That’s not what it says on the cover.” Bewildered, I closed the book and turned to it’s worn, old, spine. There I found the words in faded silver letters, “Encyclopedia of Astro….ummm …logy”. I had to laugh. Somehow while juggling an armload of other books I had misread the title of this one. Still it was a beautifully bound leather edition, however faded.. I decided to take advantage of my mistake and read up on the history of Astrology.

I learned that Astrology, Astronomy, Religion and Medicine arose together thousands of years ago and were apparently embodied in a highly revered priesthood. All four have been intertwined in popular myth, tradition, and superstition ever since.
Astrology appeared in different forms among the various Eurasian cultures. The version most of us are familiar with arose in the Middle East. There early peoples believed that as the Sun, Moon, and Planets wandered along what we now call the ecliptic, they exerted their vast heavenly powers to cast sins and virtues on the newborn.

Throughout much of the Old World, people looked to Astrologers to guide their behavior and divine the future by interpreting signs like comets and conjunctions. In their effort to make reliable predictions, the practitioners of this art kept detailed accurate records of celestial motions. Indeed much of what we know about ancient astronomy comes from the writings of early astrologers.

But not everyone held astrology in high regard. As early as A.D. 77, Pliny the Elder wrote that everyone wants to know his or her future, so obviously there will be people who take advantage of others’ gullibility.

In 16th-century France, physician, Henry Cornielius Agrippa said astrology was based upon no other foundation but upon mere trifles, and feignings of imaginations.” And Johannes Kepler called it “Astronomy’s foolish daughter.”

After the invention of the telescope astronomers discovered new planets and astrologers struggled to fine the niches where these bodies were surely meant to fit in the grand cosmic scheme. This done they felt assured that their predictive powers were now greater than even. But the same discoveries helped scientists repudiate astrology and label it pseudoscience at best.

Today astronomy and astrology have divorced completely, at least as viewed by astronomers. Scientists have spilled gallons of ink debunking the “science” behind casting horoscopes. Nevertheless, millions still consult their newspaper’s astrology column before starting each day. Some do it out of need or desire to believe that some mysterious force controls their lives. Others surely do it just for fun. Either way they probably out number those of us who relate to the heavens through astronomy, and their unbridled enthusiasm cannot be denied.

So today when I find myself talking with someone who is bubbling over with appreciation for astrology, I remember Griffith Observatory Director, Edwin Krup. He wrote that scientists should try to gain the higher ground by expounding “Astronomy’s sense of the mystery and wonder of the cosmos of the Earth, and of human history.”

That ends the Sky and Telescope article. I would like to add that in the years since this was written, the Griffith Observatory has been greatly remodled. Many of the old displays that Bob’s father worked on in the early years have been preserved as a museum, while new Hubble Space telescope observations keep being updated. It’s a wonderful place to visit when in the Los Angeles area. My, how fast the entire universe has grown since 1988!

Now a word about the First Lady Dolls. Just after I completed the Laura Bush doll, I gave the entire set of 55 dolls to my daughter Nancy. She had them on display at a political party, and someone inquired if she would be willing to donate them to the Nixon Library. She asked me if I would mind. We both agreed that a library would be a good place for them. Later, I made them a doll for Michelle Obama just as the National Archives took possession of the entire set. I can only add that I feel very proud that they wanted them.

Watch for thr next Hot Tub story