Tag Archives: science

Astronomy vs Astrology: Absolutely Not the Same Thing

About six months ago, I subscribed to a podcast called Astronomy Cast. It’s a wonderful popular science podcast about, you guessed it, astronomy & I highly recommend it. They cover anything & everything & their November episode on the zodiac inspired me to do some research & write this article.

But first, a small back story:

I’m a space nerd. It started my freshman year in college, when I needed to take a science course for my general education requirements. I’ve always liked science a lot, but there’s one problem. While I have no issue grasping the concepts, I’m terrible with numbers. Ask me to write an article on it & I’m fine, but ask me to prove theories with numbers &, well, I probably won’t prove them. I’ll probably just send you to a book or website that can. I only had to take an intro course, but even so, chemistry was out. So was physics. Even at their beginner levels, math is heavily involved. That’s when I came across Sacred Heart University’s listing of their introductory astronomy course.

I was a little apprehensive; I didn’t know what was in store for me, but it turned out to be the perfect one to take, kicking off my love affair with space. We learned about everything from the proposed history of the universe to names of stars & where they’re located in the sky.

I eventually got myself a pretty cool telescope with an eight inch mirror (I regret that I haven’t used it since my move to Boston), which can easily make out Jupiter’s cloud bands & moons, far away clouds of gas & distant galaxies. Now, I was ready to stargaze & to the dismay of others, from that moment on, I could talk anyone’s ear off about it. Pretty soon, though, I started to notice two very common responses from a concerning amount of people:

1) “It’s cool you’re into astrology, when did you get into that stuff?”
2) “Oh, cool. That’s like horoscopes & stuff, right? So, can you predict my future?”

Not to sound pretentious, but these are what I call, “head-desk” responses & soon, you’ll find out why. Before I explain it, though, I just want to say that I know people believe in certain things & while I explain this, I’m going to try to be sensitive to all the astrology lovers out there.

That’s funny. No, I’m not. Astrology is a gigantic pile of crap.  Seriously.

Okay, you get how I feel about it, so I’ll just get into the rest of the article. Astrology is a type of divination. It’s the “study” of how the locations of the different planets, sun & moon in the zodiac calendar influence your personality & daily life… blah blah blah…  There is absolutely no way any of this is true. There is plenty of evidence to support my stance, but for now, I’ll just go through the basics with you.

The positions of the constellations in the Zodiac calendar are not accurate:
This is one of the biggest points made in the “Zodiac” episode of Astronomy Cast.

The Zodiac calendar is centered around the solar ecliptic. For those of you who are wondering, the ecliptic is the line the sun appears to follow across the sky over the course of a year. In the same amount of time, the Earth travels in a complete circle, or orbit, around the sun. As we travel along the orbital path, the angle at which we observe the sun constantly changes. That means that the stars we see behind the sun change as we move through the year & your birth sign is the constellation where the sun was positioned when you were born. This is said to have a direct influence on your personality & what makes you, you.

Many of the other significant bodies in the solar system more or less follow the ecliptic as well. Astrologers believe if Mars or any other planet is in X constellation, your mood should therefore be Y. The same can be applied to the moon.

Here’s the problem with all of this. The people who invented this type of divination decided to divide up the year into twelve equal parts. Even if we disregard the fact that there are actually thirteen constellations through which the ecliptic passes, the constellations aren’t even remotely the same size & therefore don’t take up a convenient one twelfth of the ecliptic. The time it takes for the sun to appear to pass through each constellation ranges from just a few days to about forty. This means for most people, they weren’t even born under the sign they think they were & that, my friends, is just stupid.

A zodiac chart from the 9th Century, showing the 12 months versus the 12 evenly spaced zodiac signs.

A zodiac chart from the 9th Century, showing the 12 months versus the 12 evenly spaced zodiac signs.
(Photo in Public Domain)

Constellations are just shapes made up by our imagination.
Nowadays, constellations serve a purpose. Astronomers use them to find & name stars & other astronomical objects. They’re locations in the sky where we can find things. Pretty practical, right? This wasn’t always the case, though.

We know that the concept of constellations go as far back as the Ancient Babylonians, & they probably go back farther. Back in the early days of stargazing, Babylonians believed that these shapes in the sky were the deceased heroes of their culture, floating in heaven. Eventually, the Ancient Greeks adopted these stories & added their own. The Romans then added to the Greeks’ work & so on.

I like to imagine that the conversations between citizens & wise men went like this:

Citizen: Oh great one, I have a question about the stars.
Wise Man: Go ahead, son.
Citizen: How did they get there? What is that shape?
Wise Man: Well, um… uhhh, they’re dead people in heaven. See that one? That’s a ummm- hunter. His name’s Orion.
Citizen: Wow really? That doesn’t sound like a name.
Wise Man: Yeah, but it is, & see those two stars in a line that don’t look like a dog at all?
Citizen: Yes, what do they make?
Wise Man: A dog.

Anyway, they’re just imaginative & since we now know the sky isn’t a two dimensional thing, we know that the constellations’ shapes would be drastically different, if we were to look from another part of the galaxy.

They’re meaningless, aside from modern cataloging.

The pull of gravity from the planets isn’t nearly enough to affect your mood.
Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system. Aside from the sun, it’s the most massive object & has the most gravity. Relative to the rest of the solar system, the moon is small, but it can pull oceans. Just think what Jupiter can do. Better yet, your body is two thirds water. Just imagine what that does to your brain chemistry & physical health!

Okay, everything I just said up there is complete garbage & it’s all because of Newton’s law of univesal gravitation. One thing I will concede is that the planets of the solar system are pretty massive. With mass comes gravity, & with gravity, come tidal effects. These are what cause the oceans to rise & fall with the moon’s position. Here’s the thing about that law, though. While more massive objects have more of a gravitational influence, that influence diminishes as it gets farther away. That’s why if you send a spaceship out to, say, the moon, it will have to hit 25,000 miles per hour. That’s called escape velocity The farther you are from an object, the less you’ll feel from its gravitational pull. As you head towards the moon, Earth’s gravity wants to pull you back, making you decelerate, but if you leave Earth at 25,000 mph, its gravity won’t slow you down enough. You’ll coast, slowing down, but eventually, you’ll be far enough from Earth that its gravitational influence won’t exert enough on you to keep you back. You’ll break free. The moon’s will become stronger as you get closer to it & you’ll start to be pulled moon-wards.

Why did I give that long winded example? Well here: It also works the same way with the planets. Jupiter’s mass is about 25 thousand times the mass of the moon’s, so it’s natural to think it’d pull us towards it without a problem. That’s not true. It’s so far away (at its closest, Jupiter is 365 million miles away, compared to the moon’s 240 thousand) & Earth is so close, the effects are unbelievably tiny.

Let’s get some perspective on how small this effect is. Mars is much closer to Earth than Jupiter, at an average of distance 140 million miles. If you’re standing on the surface of Earth, Mars has the same gravitational influence as three humans who are in the same room as you. That’s almost nothing, & therefore, by astrology’s logic, every time you pass three people at a close distance, your personality or mood should change.

Astrology also assumes that each planet stays constantly at the same distance from Earth. That’s not even close to true. The planets are constantly at different distances from you. I previously said Mars is at an average of 140 million miles away. Remember, everything in the solar system is in motion & that means that depending on when you look at it, a planet could be all the way on the other side of the sun. It could also be on the same side as you. At its greatest distance, Mars’ gravitational influence would be much less than it’s closest distance. So, there’s definitely that.

Astrology constantly needs adjusting.
Remember when I said that everything in the solar system is in motion? The same applies to the galaxy. That means that every star is in its own orbit around the center of the Milky Way. As a consequence,the constellations are going to disassemble & change over time. Check out this video. Watch the Big Dipper in the middle. The stars start to move away from their familiar ladle-like shape. It’s a slow process, but regardless, there is going to come a time when astrologers need to rethink the signs.

The Earth is protected from the solar wind.
Reactions which are influenced by electrically charged particles happen all the time. This could affect the electrical charges which are being fired in our brains all the time, therefore changing our mood, right?
Some planets have electromagnetic fields, but it boils down to the same problem as before: distance. Jupiter has a disgustingly huge magnetic field. It’s so large, that we can pick its sound up on our radio telescopes, but by the time it gets to us, it’s too weak to do anything.

Rendition of Jupiter's magnetic field, or magnetosphere. Note how Jupiter's moons are surrounded, but Earth is not. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user, Volcanopele

Rendition of Jupiter’s magnetic field, or magnetosphere. Note how Jupiter’s moons are surrounded, but Earth is not.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user, Volcanopele)

The only object that can influence us with its particles is the sun, by constantly emitting the solar wind, which is a stream of charged particles. These flow out in every single direction. Guess what planet sits in one of the every single directions. That’s right, Earth. When an extra big solar flare that is aimed at us occurs on the sun, it has the capability to knock out communications satellites & power grids.
Down here, we have protection from it. That comes in the form of our own magnetic field. Our magnetic field deflects the majority of the sun’s charged particles, UV & other harmful radiation. So, aside from sunburn, dehydration & skin cancer it’s unlikely. Let’s pretend that most astrologers’ arguments are valid. There are still two things that astrologers don’t take into consideration here:

1) Even if the sun did influence our personalities, there is no reason to think that it would only influence us in the womb. We have more exposure to the sun after we’re born, so at the very least, depending on whether or not we wear hats or sunscreen, our personalities would still be changing constantly.
2) The website, Bad Astronomy’s article, “Misconceptions: Astrology” brings attention to astrologers’ tendencies to give the sun way less importance than the planets, despite the fact that the sun has much more of an influence on us in every way possible. It has 99% of the solar system’s mass. If it were to have an impact on your personality, it would be astronomically (all pun intended) larger than that of the planets’ effects combined.

So, as you can see, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence is stacked against astrology. That’s just the surface; there are countless other facts. Look, if you have fun pretending to predict the future, I won’t hold it against you at all. Just don’t expect me to follow along.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the week. I’ll be back with more records & useless information next week!

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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You Won’t Believe How Fast it Goes… Part 2

Alright, it’s Monday & that means we’re back with another installment of Bill’s Bologna.

Let’s continue where we left off on the topic of speed.

Alright, so last week, I stopped writing when I hit the speed which currently holds the record for the fastest any human being has ever gone. That’s what happens when you fly in the Saturn V rocket at the absurd speed of 25,000 miles per hour.

When rocket scientists make changes to something so it can be safe for human flight, they call it man rating. Many things come into play here, like acceleration, the amount the vehicle can shake, G forces & acoustics (Yes sound can kill you. Check out the Sound Suppression Water System on NASA’s manned flight launch pad, 39A). The thing is, if you aren’t launching living things, you don’t have to worry about killing them. To an extent, you can do away with some of these requirements. This means that the limit of G forces can increase, especially after leaving the atmosphere. Since there’s no air, there is no atmospheric drag holding the craft back & threatening to rip it apart. This means the rocket can accelerate faster.

I’ll talk about distances in another post, but in short, space is unimaginably big. To get from point A to B might be billions of miles. You need to go fast to get there in any kind of timely manner & timely is definitely a relative term. Let’s start with the New Horizons spacecraft. You can find some interesting information about it here. It’s going to Pluto, & holds the record for the fastest object launched. By the time it left Earth’s orbit, it was moving about 10,000 miles per hours faster than the Saturn V, at 36,373 miles per hour. Here is the launch, if you’re interested.
Voyager was launched in the 70’s. Its mission was to explore the gas giant planets & make its way out of the solar system, into interstellar space. It’s the farthest man made object from the sun & is also the fastest man made object moving away from the sun. It’s only traveling a few thousand miles per hour faster, at about 38,610 miles per hour.

Painting of one of the Voyager probes passing Jupiter. Currently. Voyager I is the farthest man made object in the solar system & it's moving at about 39,000mph.

Painting of one of the Voyager probes passing Jupiter. Currently. Voyager I is the farthest man made object in the solar system & it’s moving at about 39,000mph. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Okay let’s move away from man made objects. Let’s talk about things that occur naturally, & if you think the things we’ve talked about are fast, you have no idea what’s coming.

Asteroids. They’re space rocks & they’re hurdling through space at fantastic speeds. 65million years ago, one the size of a small island decided to hurl itself into the Gulf of Mexico, killing the dinos, while leaving a 110 mile wide crater. To do that, it needed to smack into the Earth at 44,600 miles per hour. That’s 20 times faster than a bullet. To stop something that big, which was traveling that fast, unleashed an amount of energy equivalent 100 teratons of TNT going off at once. That’s 2 million times more powerful than the largest man made explosion. Speed & mass equal lots of power. No wonder they’re all dead.

Let’s keep moving. We all know the Earth orbits the Sun. It takes 365.26 days to make one orbit of about 585 million miles. If we do the math & divide by 365.26 to get how far it travels in a day & then divide that by 24, we can get the speed in miles per hour. That comes down to 66733.28 miles per hour around the Sun. That’s about 18.5 miles per second. If it takes two seconds to read that last sentence, you’ll be 37 or so miles further into your yearly circuit.

You never really stand in the same place twice. This little ball where you live is moving at more than 65,000 mph.

You never really stand in the same place twice. This little ball where you live is moving at more than 65,000 mph. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Okay, moving up. Did you know the Sun is actually in orbit as well? You know that white splotchy thing you can see in the sky, on a clear night? That’s the Milky Way & it’s the center of our galaxy. Behind all that gas & dust you see is what astronomers call a super-massive black hole. That’s exactly what it sounds like & everything in our galaxy, from dust to the 400 billion possible stars, are moving around it. The time it takes for the Sun to complete one orbit is called a cosmic year. Because the Sun is 2/3 of the way to the edge of the galaxy, it orbits at a slower velocity than stars which are closer. It takes 225 million Earth years to equal one cosmic year. The last time the Earth was here, those dead dinos were just starting to show up. The velocity of the Sun around the galactic center is 137 miles per second. Multiply by 60 to get miles per minute & multiply by 60 again to get miles per hour. That’s staggering 493,200 miles per hour. We’re all absolutely flying & we can’t even feel it.

Speaking of the Milky Way, did you know it’s moving too? Kind of. See scientists consider galaxies to be the largest reference points for velocity. The only reference points for velocity we have are other galaxies. If the Milky Way was the only thing out there, we’d have no idea. Thank God there are are billions of others because we know the Universe is expanding. Using the other galaxies as a point of reference, relative to where you are, nearly everything is moving away from you. I say nearly because this is where it gets a little complicated… again. Because of this constant expansion, most of the galaxies are moving away from each other at 600 miles per second. That is- Are you ready for this?- 2,160,000 miles per hour. However, all matter has mass & with mass, comes gravity. This causes galaxies which are close to each other to fall towards each other. For example, while the Milky Way is flying away from other galaxies, it’s also moving around with respect to its galactic neighborhood & that makes its expansion speed significantly lower. It’s still unbelievably fast speed of 1,404,000 miles per hour, though. This is a lot of typing. If you want to get a general idea, head over to Wikipedia.
Just don’t use it in a paper. That’s bad.

There are trillions of different things in the Universe, traveling at breakneck speeds. I’m going to spare you every single one of these things, & head straight to the the most massive, yet most compact thing in the Universe. Black holes. Just like the one in the middle of our galaxy. Remember the term “escape velocity,” which I mentioned in Part 1? A black hole has such a gigantic gravitational pull, the fastest thing in the known Universe doesn’t even have enough speed to reach escape velocity. That would be light, & believe it or not, so far, after all my ramblings about speed & velocity, we’ve only reached .002 times its speed. Want to know how fast that is? Of course you do.

Okay, sit down.

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per……


That’s just about equal to 670,000,000 miles per hour. Yeah, that’s 670 million, but humans will never get there. You know why? Mass & time distort, that’s why. You’re going so freaking fast that everything you experience around you effing changes. You know what else? If someone was at a dead stop watching you careen away from them, they’d have a completely different experience watching you as you’re having, as the one doing the careening. If your crossed the event horizon, (that’s the invisible boundary where the gravitational pull of the black hole becomes so strong, it not only pulls matter in, but it pulls space, itself, but I digress.) & started falling, you would experience what scientists like to call spaghettification. That’s exactly what it sounds like. See, a black hole has so much gravity, its pull would be much stronger at your friend’s feet than at his head. That means that your feet would be falling insanely faster than your head, which is just about 6 feet away. So much, in fact, that you would be pulled into a single line of atoms… like spaghetti.

That’s what you’d experience falling in. If you were outside watching a friend fall towards a black hole, you would see your buddy fall closer & closer to the black hole, accelerating the whole time. This is where the whole “time distorts” thing comes into play. Time actually slows down the faster you go. Eventually time will slow down enough &  he’ll get to a point where he’s accelerating faster than the light he’s giving off. It will start to look like he’s falling slower & slower until he gets just before the surface. Then he. just. stops. Even at 670 million miles per hour, his light can’t escape anymore. You’ll never see him hit the surface. You can read more about this here.

Einstein says you can never accelerate past the speed of light. Presumably because if you the above scenario happens, you’ll create some rift in space time & everything will just blow up or something because 2 things are happening at once. Hey, I’m not a scientist, but I have a feeling I’m right.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with that thought to sleep on. Now you know. You’re welcome.

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