May 21, 2004
Scientists have always dismissed astrology as a load of old bunk. Now, a British astronomer has said that there might be something in it after all. Could the planets really control our fates? Ian Sample investigates.
There can be few scientists brave enough to stick their heads above the academic parapet and claim to have found proof that, contrary to hundreds of years of scientific inquiry, the movement of heavenly bodies does, after all, affect how we behave.
But few scientists are Percy Seymour. In his latest book, The Scientific Proof of Astrology, the former Plymouth University, England, astronomy lecturer, and member of the Royal Astronomical Society, argues that, while he does not believe in horoscopes, the movement of the sun, moon and various planets undoubtedly hold an influence over us. Could it be that countless devotees, ranging from Charles de Gaulle to Ronald Reagan, had it right when they kept one eye on the stars?
The argument Seymour puts forward is that the movement of the Sun, moon and sundry planets from Jupiter to Mars, interfere with the Earth's magnetic field. In doing so, the unborn offspring of expectant mothers around the world are exposed to different magnetic fields that toy with the development of their budding brains.
Seymour's suggestion that the stars and planets rule us has largely been received with the shortest of shrifts. "All I can say is that I have yet to meet another scientist that agrees with his views," says Jacqueline Mitton of the UK's Royal Astronomical Society.
"It's right up there with stuff like crop circles being made by extraterrestrials," says Robert Massey, astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, where Seymour worked as a planetarium lecturer in the early-1970s.
Seymour's book (published by Foulsham) is just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle that pits the vast majority of scientists, on one side, against the substantially fewer (but better paid) astrologists on the other. Most scientists are happy not to bother with research into astrology; to them astrology is among the worst manifestations of pseudoscience, worthy of as little intellectual expenditure as homeopathy. Others dabble with testing astrology's claims, while a few, such as Seymour, hop the fence of tradition completely to become scientist turned believer.
Michel Gauquelin started the ball rolling in earnest with his 1955 study of the so-called Mars effect. Put simply, it states that Mars is more likely to be in certain parts of the sky when top sports stars are born. The study caused a predictable furore, but did not stand up to the barrage of criticism that followed. "It was held up as a success for astrology, but when the results were looked at in close detail, and when the experiment was repeated, it fell apart," says Massey.
Since Gauquelin, a steady trickle of papers have appeared, often reported in minor scientific journals. A study of the 1991-92 English football league suggested players were nearly twice as likely to be born between September and November than in the summer months. Fast bowlers, according to another study, were more likely to be born in the first half of the year. Earlier this year, Richard Wisemann, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, England, published work suggesting summer babies were more likely to consider themselves lucky.
Most scientists dismiss Seymour's arguments simply because the changes in the Earth's magnetic field that he believes are so significant for our behaviour are so minute. The magnetic field, which is generated by the Earth's spinning molten iron core, is pathetically weak compared with the magnetic fields our gadgets and infrastructure produce. Earlier this year, the government's radiation watchdog, the National Radiological Protection Board, recommended that Britain cut magnetic field exposure from power lines to 100 microtesla, which is still twice the Earth's natural field strength.
The field is most disrupted by bad weather on the sun. A huge magnetic storm there releases clouds of particles that blast Earth. But at worst, these storms make the magnetic field waver by nothing more than 1 or 2 per cent.
As for seasonal changes that astrologers might unwittingly be picking up on, they do exist, but are so small as to be almost unmeasurable. "If the Earth's magnetic field collapsed to zero, we'd get a higher dose of radiation from space and that would have an effect on our behaviour, but I don't think it would make it any easier to predict if you're going to come into money one week or the next," says Massey.
"Your mobile phone, your television, your washing machine — any electrical equipment you have generates far stronger magnetic fields than the Earth's field."
While Seymour is widely seen as a scientist who has joined the defence of the astrologers, it was a former astrologer who helped deliver the most important blow to the credibility of his previous profession.
Last year, Geoffrey Dean, who left astrology to become a scientist in Perth, carried out what is probably the most robust scientific investigation into astrology ever undertaken. He led a study of 2000 people, most born within minutes of one another, and looked at more than 100 different characteristics, ranging from IQ to ability in art and sport, from anxiety levels to sociability and occupation — all of which astrologers claim are influenced by heavenly bodies. He found no evidence of the similarities that astrologers would have predicted.
But despite the intellectual mudflinging that goes on between many astrologers and scientists, much to the latter's discomfort, science is too blunt a tool to definitively rule out that astrology is bunkum. Some scientists certainly believe there are valid questions to be asked.
Dr Mike Hapgood, an expert in what astronomers refer to as "sun- Earth interactions" at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, England, says we have no real data on how, if at all, magnetic fields might affect human behaviour. "There's an interesting question there and it's not something that is well understood," he says.
Hapgood argues that it could be folly to dismiss outlandish ideas too easily. "You need to do the science properly to find out anything solid. You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If anyone ever finds a cause, the subject will get out of its trough and become truly interesting," he says.
The word "cause" is key. So far, studies that claim to support astrology point out correlations, merely observed links between one happening and another. But correlations do not always point to causes and effects. And with nothing else to go on, the nature of the real cause and effect can only be speculated upon.
Can magnetic fields affect the way an unborn child's brain develops? Undoubtedly if the field is strong enough, but how strong is strong enough? And how do we know what difference those changes would make to behaviour? If a simple blast of magnetic field could turn your average unborn child into a future premiership footballer, neuroscientists would be tearing up text books quicker than you can say hippocampus.
The problem for those scientists keen on debunking astrology is that designing an experiment to prove one way or another whether the movement of the planets affects us is practically unachievable. With that in mind, some scientists, while privately laughing out loud at the suggestion that astrology could be for real, are publicly reluctant to dismiss it all together.
"The difficulty for scientists is that we know the strangest sounding ideas can sometimes turn out to be true," says Mitton.
One of the few things that remains incontrovertible about astrology is its popularity. High-profile astrologers working in the popular media don't need to look up their stars to know if they're going to be in the money or sleeping on the streets come Wednesday.
Salaries for top players are reported to stretch to seven figures, once takings from related phone lines and websites are accounted for. And Seymour, with this, his second book on science and astrology, has undoubtedly benefited from the eagerness of people to give up their money for a heavenly belief.
The popularity of astrology, is to some at least, driven by a need for a substitute for religion, a desire to believe that life is reassuringly out of one's hands. "When you have the decline of organised religion in the conventional sense, you get people looking for other things, whether it's Californian crystals or a daily horoscope. It provides some kind of psychological prop. I have no wish to suppress it, I just don't think it's a useful way of interpreting the world," says Massey.
But there is one certainty that we can predict in confidence: Seymour's book will not be the end of the argument. While there is no proof that either side can trumpet, there will be noises made.
"Maybe being born in the summer gives you a predisposition to a certain type of behaviour, I don't know. But I do know it's highly unlikely to have anything to do with where Mars, Saturn, Jupiter or Venus are in the sky that night," says Massey.