Throughout my life, having a story, or an idea of a story, helped me get through the moment-to-moment of having to feel it all. It helped this summer. Other things that helped: Fancy ice cream, vaping on the fire escape, listening to The Weeknd. I read the online posts from astrologer Chani Nicholas for guidance. She assured her readers that it was an intense time, especially for those of us with Capricorn in our chart.
Capricorn being my rising sign, the stars indicated emotional turmoil over my very existence, my struggle with purpose and being and self. I keep returning to one question she posed, late in August, as I was trying to make this piece come together. If anything, she was even more annoyed with the Mercury retrograde poster than I was—and even more amused by the memes I described for her.
I felt rocked by alternating waves of dread and wonder, absorbing the summer night and the solitude of my perch. A star was directly overhead, and my phone told me it was Vega, Capricorn's next-door neighbor. Gradually we both realized the same thing: I had been staring at the astrological upheaval of the summer, retrograde Mars in my rising sign. The red planet was slowly drawing a bright path over the exact point in the sky that was dawning, in the east, the morning I was born.
My whole life my mother has handed me bizarre, charmed objects—rocks with fossils in them, dried seeds, semi-precious stones on a chain—with instructions to wear them, wield them, or keep them on a shelf. This is all strange, sure.
Hinduism is an ancient religion of personal enlightenment, with layers of tradition built on top of each other like sedimentary rock. For much of my family, momentous decisions like choosing a wedding date or naming a child would not go forward without first consulting an astrologer. My mother allowed me to consult it as a teenager, but then locked it away, cautioning that too much future-gazing is unhealthy. Before I started teasing her for it, my mother would call me at each anniversary of the start of her hour labor, or when she had her last meal Big Macs before arriving at the hospital.
My dad sent me my legal birth certificate. My mother once absentmindedly transposed the last four digits of her Social Security number onto mine, so I technically applied to college fraudulently. But learning this sent me into a tailspin.
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At the ninth minute, though, Aquarius began to dawn on the horizon. The minute discrepancy irritated me. What if the clock in the delivery room was wrong? What if I drew my first breath at A. Surely that took a minute or two. I asked her. None of this bothered her in the slightest. Then again, I told my mother I was writing this piece, she was more skeptical than I anticipated.
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She remembered astrology as not magical thinking but superstitious hindrance, citing the youngest daughter of a family friend who could never get married because there was a bad omen in her chart. The descent into finding ever more auspicious dates for ever more mundane activities. And something else: the practice of gaming birth charts through planned C-sections. The exact same Internet access that makes the millennial astrology fixation possible has led to a boom of births where parents pressure obstetricians to perform C-sections within an auspicious window of time.
There is a lot to fear in this life. I want astrology to be real.
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I want it to be arcane wisdom, handed down over millennia. I want to believe in some divine, organizing principle; some key to why we are the way we are. I think—I believe—that Mars, tracing the path along my ascendant this summer, brought me back to the beginning of my story for a reason. I am terrified of the world, but I cannot deny how much it has given me, too.
And if the movement of planets is telling a story, then I want to be a part of it. Once in a while, in the moments when I think I might be O. So I asked Chani Nicholas for one single piece of personal guidance: when to get hitched. 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 2, people, most born within minutes of one another, and looked at more than 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.
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He found no evidence of the similarities that astrologers would have predicted. But despite the intellectual mud-flinging 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, says we have no real data on how, if at all, magnetic fields might affecthuman behaviour. Hapgood argues that it could be folly to dismiss outlandish ideas too easily. You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If anyone ever finds a cause, the subject will get out of it's 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. One of the few things that remains incontrovertible about astrology is its popularity.
Mystic Meg et al 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, among them Jonathan Cainer and Russell Grant, 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. 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.