by Prof. Kavan Ratnatunga

The origins of astrology is in prehistory. Humans had little understanding of the world they lived in. Ancient observers of the sky, followed the motion of five star-like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), along the fixed star patterns known as the Zodiac, through which the Sun and Moon appears to move. The Sun, Moon and planets were assumed to be gods moving in a celestial sphere, with a flat-Earth in the center. Natural phenomena such as lightening and thunder, were acts of gods. Appearance of comets in the sky, were assumed to predict disaster.

Egyptian priests, observed that the Nile flooded when the brightest star in the sky Sirius rose before the Sun. This allowed them to define the year and predict the annual flood, which they used to their political advantage. Astrology was developed to exploit humans' curiousness to know the future, by attempting to relate positions of the Sun, Moon and planets at the time of birth, with events in a persons life.

Blind Faith and belief should not be a part of modern Society. Scientific knowledge should have educated us away from mythical beliefs and superstition, which dominated ancient civilizations. Science now understand a lot about the Universe we live in. We know our Universe came into existence about 13.7 billion years ago, and that the Earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago and bipedal primates from which we are direct descendants, evolved only around five million years ago.

There will always be new discoveries in Science, as we get finer observations and refine our understanding of life, the Universe and everything. However some knowledge is so precisely understood, they are not issues that need to be open for debate. We know the Earth is billions of years old and the Young-Earth theory has no more reality than the Flat-Earth theory which only some crackpots believe today. Scientific ignorance is however still very high. Recent polls in USA have shown that 25% still believe the Sun goes round the Earth, and 40% believe the Earth is just about 6000 years old, and Humans lived alongside dinosaurs.

Life on Earth depends critically on the Sun, and life in the sea evolved to take advantage of tides caused by the Moon, which has been inherited by humans as the monthly cycle. These are not evidence for astrology. Astrology is based on the horoscope, which locates the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets along the ecliptic, at the time of birth of an individual.

The framework of astrology can be Scientifically proved to be false with absolute certainty, as we can say, the Earth is not flat, and pigs can't fly. The directions to the planets in the sky at birth, are predictable and unrelated to an individual. We understand the forces of Nature and can compute exactly and show that the Sun, Moon and planets have far less gravitational or electromagnetic influence on a birth of a child than the furniture or light bulb, in the delivery room.

To keep an open mind, I wish to also point out that Palmistry, although non-scientific, cannot be proved to be false to the absolute degree of certainty as astrology. The lines on a persons hand, are at least directly associated with the individual and may reflect in some way information in one's DNA. There are some other concepts such as Telepathy and ESP, which may have explanations which are unknown to current Science.

Astrology is formulated with the false concept that the Earth is the center of the solar system. For example, one cannot cast a horoscope, for a child who can be expected to be born in the future, on the Moon or Mars. Any logical framework needs to be space-invariant. i.e. The same laws of nature, known or unknown, should govern us independent of where we are located in the Universe (Space-Time continuum). Even if we postulate unknown forces acting through unknown dimensions, the geocentric framework of astrology, is by definition not space-invariant and therefore not logical.

The stars in the 12 constellations of the Zodiac are not physically associated. They just happen to be in about the same direction as viewed from Earth at this point in time. The stars are many light years apart and moving in different directions. From another location in our galaxy, or a few million years in the past or future, they would show a non familiar pattern.

Even the division of the ecliptic into 12 equal segments is arbitrary. The origin was taken to be in a direction where the ecliptic intersects plane of Earth's equator. However precession of the Earth's axis of rotation, moves this direction through the 12 constellations of the Zodiac in about 25,765 years. In the 4000 years since astrology was invented in Babylonia, the origin which was called the "First point in Aries" at the border between the constellations of Taurus and Aries, has moved through Aries and most of Pisces and will move into Aquarius in near future. This has been referred to as the dawn of the age of Aquarius. Various astrological traditions use different points of origin. Many ancient Indian astrologies, continue to also use ancient tables, ignoring their cumulative computational errors in positions of planets.

In the Western system, the Sun sign was the constellation in which the Sun is located at the time of birth. The Year in the Gregorian calender has been defined to keep the equinox when the Sun is above the equator and moving North, to be on March 21. However since western astrology ignores about 2000 years of precession, there is a mismatch with the actual constellation of the Zodiac in sky.

In the eastern system the primary sign (Lagna), is the constellation which is rising at the time and place of birth. It changes about every two hours and depends on latitude. Eastern astrology also incorporates two mythical shadow demons Rahu and Ketu, at the nodes of the Moon's orbit, to swallow the Sun and Moon during Eclipses :-)

Although the interpretation of a horoscope is pure nonsense, the chart is based on simple Astronomy. Casting an astrological chart is therefore a learning exercise, for anyone with an interest in amateur Astronomy. I remember doing so in the early 1970's, and when it matched with that cast by the astrologer for her grandson, my Aunt was very impressed. Since the mid 20th century Lankan astrologers have based their almanac on the Astronomical Ephemeris, published by US Naval Observatory, which I had used.

Proper statistical analysis would show that, predictions have no more than random chance to come true. Predictions are more often non-specific, so they can match many events, which are remembered if they are believed to agree, and forgotten if they don't. Some have told me that what was predicted, was what they were planning for future, at the time of visit, and not what actually happened. Astrologers make vague ambiguous statements, which are modified on the fly, based on the observed reactions or body language of the customer. People make connections, fill in the gaps, and then believe they have got an exact match. People often hear and read what they expect, not literally what they are told or is written.

Faith in astrology, like with any religion, can have a strong influence on individuals. I was once told that an astrologer predicted the future of a child who would become a famous painter. In this case it was confidence building, and motivated the mother to influence the child.

If this kind of blind faith has always a positive influence, then it is not harmful and could even be beneficial, to build confidence. In a society with arranged marriages, comparison of horascopes gives a diplomatic way if needed to say no to a marriage proposal. Unfortunately the same faith in astrology, has prevented some persons from marriage (e.g. Senasuru apala). Faith has sometimes given over confidence to children expecting celestial help, who do badly at exam,s by not studying properly. In other cases persons are known to have died on the day predicted by astrology. Faith can clearly influence a believers mind, body and actions.

Certain horoscopes of children are interpreted to be bad for the parents (Hathara kendare palu). These children often get abandoned and sometimes handed over to the temple. It should be a human Right to be not socially condemned by your time of birth. If astrology has such predictable influence on life of persons, maybe astrologers should publish time periods in which children should not be born. A doctor can clearly alter the delivery time of a baby by few hours, which will change the horoscope significantly. This too reflects the silliness of the framework on which astrology is based.

Reflecting a serious lack of scientific understanding of the cosmos, there is a strong cultural interest in astrology in Lanka. Most politicians seem to operate government with this faith. In 1992 President Premadasa, changed the spelling of our country name, based on an astrological prediction, on the President of Sri Lanka. As president of Shri Lanka he was killed the next year. Few years ago the Sinhala election manifesto of a loosing presidential candidate, said he would create an Astrological Institute in Lanka. Interestingly it was not mentioned in the English manifesto, reflecting that the statement was aimed at the Sinhala speaking public, he assumed, is less scientifically educated. The appreciative astrologers, came out on TV, with predictions that he would win. He still lost.

I have never felt there is a need to disprove nonsense, which is best ignored. I write this in reply, to the astrological feature published in this section on 15th July 2007. There is absolutely no reason to fear trouble from any motion of the direction to Saturn, about 2 billion kilometers from the Earth, across an arbitrary constellation boundary, unless you are hypnotized by astrology, to act irrationally. In which case, I hope this article would help, return you to reality. Serious Newspapers unlike tabloids are expected to only publish reality. I hope that in the future Pseudo nonsense such as astrology, will have a For Entertainment Only Warning.

Writer is an Astrophysicist and Chairman of the Committee for Popularization of Science of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS).

An edited version of this article Return to reality By Kavan Ratnatunga appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2007 July 29th.