Astrological sign of the times

The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 13 2011 1:21 PM

Astrological sign of the times

Sometimes, I'm not even sure where to begin with something.

OK. So this afternoon I see on Twitter that the word "zodiac" is trending, meaning lots of people are talking about it (as I write this it still is). Right, that happens sometimes, and sometimes I'll post a snarky response. But I also see the word "Ophiuchus" trending, and I think, what?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


Then I get an email from BABloggee Kevin Jung saying he heard some DJs on a radio program talking about how astronomers have "rearranged the zodiac". Even before I read another sentence I pretty much know what's going on. Happily, Kevin found the source of all this: an article in Minnesota's Star Tribune. And it all falls into place.

OK, first, let's get this out of the way:

Got it? Good.

Great, so what's with this new story? Basically, the Star Tribune talked to an astronomer and an astronomy teacher in the area, who (correctly) poo-pooed astrology. The astronomer mentioned that the signs of the zodiac have shifted since they were first invented thousands of years ago. This is true, because the Earth's axis wobbles over time, which has the effect of shifting the positions of the zodiacal constellations in the sky, or, more accurately, the time of the year the Sun passes through them. So it used to be that if you were born on March 22, you were an Aries... if you went by the original timing of when the Sun was in Aries. But now, millennia later, the Sun is actually in Pisces on that date. And it won't be much longer before it's in Aquarius in late March (hence "the dawning of the Age of Aquarius", in case you're my age and a hippy or a 5th Dimension fan).

So that takes care of the shifting zodiac constellations bit. What about Ophiuchus?

Ophiuchus (which I pronounce oh-FYE-uh-cuss) is the serpent bearer, and is a constellation near Scorpius in the sky. Technically, the Sun passes through Ophiuchus, and in fact is in the constellation longer than it's in Scorpius! But we don't include it in the zodiac for a couple of reasons; one is that the stars in it are pretty faint, while those of Scorpius are brighter and easier to recognize, and another is that we can't have 13 constellations, can we? So poor Ophiuchus is sent off to hold his serpent by himself.

That's really all there is to it. The constellations aren't being redefined, and certainly not suddenly by some astronomical coup (the same group, no doubt, being blamed for Pluto). And Ophiuchus has long been a point of contention. Nothing in this story is new at all! It's another case of media (social or otherwise) fueled nonsense.

I'll note this silliness has extended well beyond Twitter; the prestigious scientific journal OK!* says that "Taylor Swift’s the New 13th Sign Ophiuchus!" and goes on to say that even if the astrological signs change, "horoscope readings reportedly shouldn’t be affected."

Phew! I'll agree with them on that. After all...

* Not an actual scientific journal.

Related posts:


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059


Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

How Moscow’s Anti-War March Revealed One of Russia’s Deepest Divides

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 7:46 PM Azealia Banks’ New Single Is Her Best in Years
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.