Astronomer Parke Kunkle has discovered there are other constellations in the sky besides the twelve we are familiar with. He is so impressed with his discovery that he wants to add a new zodiac sign to the pantheon, Ophiuchus, the snake handler. He has gotten a lot of people riled up wondering what is their zodiac sign. Talk about identity crisis! This is his reasoning:
“The Earth spins and, like a toy top, the spin axis moves around, pointing in different directions. Today, Earth’s spin axis points toward the pole star, Polaris. Around 3000 BC Earth’s spin axis pointed toward Thuban. Wait 26,000 years and the north star will again be Thuban. Astronomers call this motion of the spin axis precession. About 130 BC, Hipparchus noticed that the Earth’s spin axis had changed directions, so astronomers and astrologers have known about the Earth’s precession for over 2000 years. “But this means that if the sun was “in” a certain constellation on a particular date, it is in a different constellation on that date today. For example, the sun was in Pisces on March 1, 2000 BC but it is in Aquarius on March 1, 2011 AD.”
Not so fast, Professor Kunkle
When the original zodiac was named the first day of spring, the vernal equinox aligned with the Sun’s entrance into the constellation of Aries. Of course the ancients were well aware that there were many more constellations in the sky than twelve, but what makes these twelve constellations so special was that the sun appeared to be traveling through them. This was a powerful observation as the apparent path of the sun moved a smidgeon less than one degree each day almost matching the 360 degrees we mark in a circle. In a year then the Sun appeared to travel through twelve constellations to come back to the first day of spring. This was how the zodiac wheel we know so well was defined. Everything appeared to mesh, a Universe that ran in synch with the movement of our sun.
But the Earth is a bad actor
We all know what happens when a top spins. Eventually as it slows, it wobbles. Well, the earth wobbles too, and the result of this wobbling is that, as Professor Kunkle points out where the Earth axis point to true north has changed. But unfortunately for Professor Kunkle the whole debate about how astrologers define the zodiac was decided two millennia ago, when ancient astrologers realized the constellations in the sky didn’t align with the first day of spring. What made more sense to the astrologers of the day, in a civilization powered by the planting and harvesting of crops was to keep the year in as divided by the equinoxes. Each 30 degree slice of the movement of the sun retained the names of the zodiac sign for which they were originally named. This is what we call the tropical zodiac. And despite the fact that the tropical zodiac does not align with the constellations of today, the characteristics of we associate with those zodiac signs hold true today, suggesting that it is the movement of the sun, not the constellations themselves that give each of the zodiac signs their special joie de vivre.
Now some of you with a more detailed understanding of astrology and/or astronomy are asking, “Yes, but Vedic astrologers use the sidereal zodiac. Wouldn’t Kunkle’s argument affect them?” Well, no, boys and girls, because Kunkle’s argument has another flaw and that has to do where Ophiuchus is placed in the heavens.
So where does this Ophiuchus character come in?
Ophiuchus as a constellation is said to be between Sagittarius and Scorpio. However, take a look at this star map as rendered by Nasa. You will note that the traditional zodiac signs have the main body of their stars at or very near the plane the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun. However, even today, with all the earth’s wobbling, our buddy, Ophi, by comparison has the bulk of his stars set off quite a bit from the plane of the ecliptic. Granted a few of his snaky parts cross over the line, but close enough is only good in the game of horseshoes. Sadly our pal Ophi is rather like the Harry Potter character Nearly Headless Nick who is excluded from the yearly Headless Hunt because his head is not totally detached. But who knows, even among astrologers this debate exists, though as it stands we aren’t looking to change any astrology textbooks any time soon.
Professor Kunkle knows all this. I rather suspect that he is taking pot shots at astrologers, who most astronomers despise because we are not “scientific”. In fact he is quoted as saying:
”In science we deal with a long tradition of fact based investigation. We are not in the business of interpreting the purported relation between the positions of planets and human affairs.
And for all the media attention his pronouncements has garnered:
“I’m having a blast,” Kunkle said. “among other things it calls attention to astronomy.”
So guys and gals
Relax. You are still the zodiac sign you were born with. Your friendly neighborhood astrologer says so.
Ophiuchus image published under a public domain image as described by Wikipedia.
Nasa Map of Constellations for the Northern Hemisphere in June published as a public domain image.