Yesterday was the first Solar Eclipse of the year. The attached pic, courtsey APOD, captures the phenomenon beautifully.
"The track of totality for the first solar eclipse of 2006 began early yesterday on the east coast of Brazil and ended half a world away at sunset in western Mongolia. In between, the shadow of the Moon crossed the Atlantic Ocean, northern Africa, and central Asia, and so came for a moment to the small Greek island of Kastelorizo in the eastern Aegean. Astronomer Anthony Ayiomamitis reports that the islanders and many eclipse-watching visitors were indeed treated to an inspiring display of the beautiful solar corona as totality lasted about three minutes. As the total phase of the eclipse ended, he was able to capture this striking "diamond ring" image. In it, the first rays of sunlight shining through edge-on lunar valleys create the fleeting appearance of glistening diamonds set in a bright ring around the Moon’s silhouette."
In India, the eclipse was parital. But our superstition was in its full glory. Newspapers carried advise for pregnant women to not go outside during the eclipse to avoid having a blind baby or one with a cleft lip, asked people to throw food cooked before the eclipse since it would become impure, and warned that those holding a knife or axe during the eclipse would cut themselves. A TV News channel linked horoscopes to solar eclipse superstitions.
Note that these are newspapers and News channels, whose job, I would imagine, is to report fact and not entertain. One would expect them to dispel such superstition and educate the masses. But no, such stories get attention, and that means ad-revenue. That’s why the daily horoscope is still one of the most popular columns in any newspaper, and carried by all newspapers and TV channels. Worse, even educated people seem to believe in it. One of my close friends, an ace programmer with a razor sharp mind, is a keen practitioner of astrology. I keep asking him how such far off objects could potentially exert an influence on my body. The answer is typically about gravity: it causes tides in fluids, and the human body is 70% water. There is a gravitational tug exerted by all these objects, and that’s how they influence us. This is about where we have gotten our discussion to, so far. One of these days, I hope to have a long chat with him and find out why he has a belief in astrology. Somewhere it has to do with plain faith and belief in the empirical evidence, not gravity.
But how did astrology come into being? One can imagine how the ancient man, sleeping under a clear sky, not covered with the haze of smoke and electric light, would have been fascinated with the movement of the stars and the planets. It is natural for him to think of those objects as having divine powers, influencing us. Continued observation would have led him to associate certain phenomena with the movement of these objects. Once you have faith in a certain association, your mind invents evidence where there is none. Why, even as late as 20th century we had Sir Arthur Edington performing an experiment during the solar eclipse in Brazil and West Africa to measure the deflection of light as predicted by the General Theory of Relativity, and found the measurement to be true to the theoretical prediction. Later, it was found that the error in the instrumentation was higher than the measurement actual, rendering the experiment useless. A classic case of the experimenter finding the evidence he was looking for. (It was only fifty years later that we had experimental proof of the GTR which has since been proven true over and over again.) The human mind loves the mystical for some reason. And to invent evidence is easy. Especially on something as immeasurable as human behavior. It is this aspect of the human nature which has led to Astrology, and its continued survival in this age of the Hubble Telescope.
I am not against astrology per se. It is entertaining and interesting, especially in the context of its impact on human history and social evolution. What I am against is its acceptance as a science and being used as a basis for taking decisions. In this sense, it is no better than a Crystall Ball – utterly useless.
However, at times, astrology has been put to good use. Four hundred years ago, Johannes Kepler (who gave us the laws of planetary motion and observed the last supernova) used to fund his astromony by practising astrology as a day-job. He once described astrology as "Astronomy’s wanton little sister, who goes out and sells herself so that older, wiser sister may keep her Virtue." Thankfully today, an astronomer does not have to resort to astrology to finance his scientific pursuits. But it is sad that our media still needs money badly enough to earn it by such dubious means.