Astrology Ontology

October 22, 2022

Astronomy uses people to explain the stars.

Astrology uses the stars to “explain” people.


Many amateur astronomers, myself included, have enjoyed Quasar Publishing’s annual Astronomy publication. Astronomy 2023 includes an article titled Astrology – the First Astronomers which at least in some forums, has generated some discussion.

The one page article talks a bit about the historical context of astrology as predating astronomy, its focus on the constellations that the Sun appears to pass through – the zodiacal constellations – due to the Earth’s annual trek around the Sun, and that the Earth’s slow wobble about its axis leads to the so-called precession of the equinoxes that has changed the zodiac’s constellation-occupying date ranges.

The article also talks about some well-known figures in the history of Science have practiced astrology including Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Ptolemy. As did Kepler, who also believed that there was some relationship between the platonic solids and planetary spacing. Today, we revere him for his Three Laws of Planetary Motion, investigations into optics, measuring the volume of wine barrels, and an early Science Fiction story (Somnium). He, like many early scientists, was on the cusp of the old and new ways. Think also of Newton, who was an alchemist. It’s easy for us to see the many ways in which they were in error now, given our historical perspective and educational good fortune.

The Astronomy 2023 authors comment on the aspect of the day of a person’s birth in relation to the Sun’s position at that time as used in “newspaper horoscopes”, and follow on with this:

Astrologers have clearly defined methods on how to create such charts, but the problem is the validity of their initial assumptions to start with. From a scientific basis, it has never been demonstrated how the arrangement of these distant bodies can influence individual’s characteristics.

So far, so good.

Earlier in the article we have this:

This article is not a criticism of astrology, but more spelling out the differences between astronomy and astrology.

That’s also fine as far as it goes. They continue with:

A bit like how science cannot be used to disprove God (whichever version) or in this case, astronomy disprove astrology.

It’s true. The existence of gods is not susceptible to proof or disproof. I’m not going to lose sleep over this or the infinity of other things we can’t prove or disprove. As an aside, the word prove shouldn’t be bandied around so much. The only things that can be proven are mathematical theorems. Science doesn’t prove things: it gathers more and more evidence in favour of a particular hypothesis or against some other.

The article follows on with:

They are just different. Astrology and religions are belief systems which are effectively non-falsifiable…this means there is no test known (or perhaps even possible?) that would disprove a concept. By religions, we include all the gods, including those that used to be worshiped by the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East cultures, responsible for the mythological figures immortalized in today’s constellations.

To be honest, by the time I had tossed around the content of the article, the initial knee-jerk reaction of “why the heck is there anything about astrology in Astronomy 2023?” had given way to: “how could the article be improved?”

My main feedback to the authors is that we need to be careful not to encourage the perception that all forms of knowledge are equal. Having an opinion isn’t enough, especially for things that matter in some important way. It’s okay to criticise ideas and systems of belief. More than that, we must criticise ideas because otherwise no progress can ever be made! Sometimes ridicule is also valid, in the case of truly toxic belief systems. Kinder, constructive criticism is better. Let’s face it: we’ve all had bad ideas.

The authors do make the point that belief of the astrological and religious kind are not falsifiable. They also mention that astrological assumptions and mechanisms are suspect.

Perhaps the case could have been made even more clearly by saying that systems of belief such as astrology and religion have no predictive or explanatory powers, whereas Scientific theories do, and further that the latter are open to question and revision. That’s not to say that Science is not a human process. There’s ego and politics aplenty. But the Method wins in the end.

I would also suggest that if all someone does when reading their daily horoscope is to have a laugh, then there’s nothing to worry about. If astrology or religion leads to important life decisions, then I think it is more than reasonable to apply a bit more scrutiny.

To prefer the hard facts over our dearest illusions, that is the core of Science. 

(Carl Sagan commenting upon Johannes Kepler)

Waiting for Artemis 1…

August 29, 2022

I’m currently watching NASA TV waiting for the launch of Artemis 1, the first test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion crew capsule, albeit unmanned this time with “crash test dummies”, mannequins that will be used to measure forces and radiation, and the first mission to the Moon of its kind for 50 years, since Apollo 17 in 1972.

There was an unplanned hold at 40 minutes before launch due to an operating temperature problem in engine #3.

There are a couple of launch opportunities in early September if today’s launch is cancelled.

This is an important precursor test mission for Artemis 2, a crewed mission scheduled for 2024 that will orbit the Moon and return its astronauts to Earth, Apollo 8 style, before the first crewed landing mission, Artemis 3, in 2025, 53 years after Apollo 17 and 56 years after Apollo 11.

I must admit that life keeps me pre-occupied enough that I wasn’t thinking about this much again until recently. For someone who remembers being sent home from school, even as a 5 year old boy, to watch Apollo 11 on the family B&W TV along with the blurry pictures of Neil Armstrong on the ladder of the LEM, and as a lifelong fan of spaceflight, manned and robotic, the fact that Artemis (the twin of Apollo) is happening seems just a bit special.

NOTE: While writing this, the Artemis 1 launch was scrubbed for today. The next earliest possible launch date is September 2nd, pending the outcome of the analysis of test data from today’s engine problem. Here’s hoping!

EDIT: More than 2.5 months after I wrote this post (Aug 29 2022), Artemis 1 has finally launched!

20 years since Mum died

August 16, 2022

August 17 2022 marks 20 years since my mother died.

My first inclination was to title this post 20 years since Mum’s passing. Even though I sometimes find myself using the word “passing” in this context, as an atheist, the word makes no sense to me here.

So, what’s changed in 20 years?

Everything and nothing.

And yes, I am aware that’s not a logically consistent statement…

Here’s a personal, random (that’s me in a nutshell) and partial list of things that have and have not changed:

  • A little over a year after we lost Mum, Karen and I had a daughter, Heather, who we dearly wish had known my mother.
  • The Kepler spacecraft has shown us that the universe is likely to be teeming with planets.
  • I still think Mum was the kindest, wisest, sanest of us all.
  • Some countries think war is still a fine idea. Sigh…
  • Our species is beginning to understand that consuming resources at the current rate is problematic. Note that’s not the same as doing something about it…
  • The world as a whole is still not taking climate change all that seriously.
  • I changed employers a few times.
  • The future of computing is still exciting and scary in equal measure. Technology is not value free.
  • I still think of Mum most days. I still miss her, and that’s how it should be.

Shameful attack on Salman Rushdie

August 14, 2022

Religious freedom ends where human or animal suffering begins.

Marianne Thieme

Those who have suggested that the recent attack on Salman Rushdie is the fulfilment of the 1989 fatwa issued against him for his book, The Satanic Verses, should be reminded that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, not all opinions are equal. Ridiculous ideas should be ridiculed.

All such utterances do is to reinforce Christopher Hitchen’s view that religion poisons everything.

Muslims who disagree with extremist interpretations of Islam should denounce, in the strongest possible terms, those who believe that an insult to their prophet makes anything permissible.

Neither should people of any religious conviction come to the defense of such Islamists on the grounds that they are being faithful to Allah, as if faith itself is something to be considered a virtue, grounds for being a member of a special club.

On some matters, it just is NOT the case that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Not when an opinion leads directly to physical harm!

Our species is in serious need of growing up.

We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do now that their faith is optional and private and irrelevant is a matter for them. We should not care. As long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.

Christopher Hitchens

VStar Citations and other References

August 14, 2022

The purpose of this post to maintain a list of publications and other direct references to VStar.

At the time of writing, 23 papers in the following journals cite the use of VStar:

  • The Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers
  • Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society
  • Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia
  • Open European Journal on Variable stars
  • Acta Astronomica
  • arXiv (open-access archive)

The 2012 Algorithms + Observations = VStar” JAAVSO paper is currently the suggested way to cite use of VStar (as per the main AAVSO VStar page), although a CFF citation entry on GitHub or software publication DOI may be recommended as an alternative in future.

In the videos section, John Percy is author of the 2007 text book, Understanding Variable Stars.




U Sco update

June 8, 2022

Within a day, the nova reached a peak magnitude of 7.8, then dropped two magnitudes, becoming around 5 times dimmer in actual brightness (magnitude is logarithmic).

The AAVSO Alert Notice details the decline of the last outburst over a few months and flares with an amplitude of around half a magnitude that began several days after the peak, for which the mechanism is unknown.

Outburst of the Recurrent Nova U Sco

June 8, 2022

In late September 2021, I wrote about the recurrent nova U Scorpii: Waiting for U Sco and Waiting for U Sco: nearby gamma ray transient detected.

The last image I took of the region around U Sco in September showed no sign of it, but within the last day it has undergone an outburst, and appears to have quickly peaked, as per previous events (the last being in January 2010) before declining again. The nova reached a visual magnitude of 7.8 on June 7 2022 up from its usual magnitude 18 or thereabouts, a difference in brightness of around 25 times (each magnitude being a factor of 2.512 brighter than the whole number magnitude on either side of it). As I write, U Sco has declined to around magnitude 8.4.

The light curves show the current and 2010 outburst, and a close up of the current outburst. It’s interesting note that there appears to have been some evidence of an increase in magnitude in the few months leading up to the outburst.

I took a DSLR image of the region around the nova tonight. U Sco is marked with a red arrow.

While I don’t have images that are suitable for DSLR photometry from tonight (the sky was less than ideal), nor did I have the chance to make a visual (binocular or telescope) observation, from the image I estimate the nova’s magnitude to be around 8.4 (magnitude 8.3 and 8.6 comparison stars are marked with green arrows), which is consistent with the current photometry in the AAVSO International Database.

The following images show the U Sco region tonight (June 2022) and late last September for comparison, in different sky conditions and positions on the sky. The second image has been rotated to match the current event’s sky rotation. Flicking up and down between the images will help reveal the nova, aided by the arrowed image above if necessary.

June 2022 outburst (5 seconds, ISO 800, f2.0, Canon 1100D)
U Sco region in late September 2021 (3 seconds, ISO 800, f2.0, Canon 1100D)

For more information about recurrent novae, I gave a talk in early September 2021 to ASSA about another recurrent nova RS Oph. See also this AAVSO forum page regarding the current outburst.

EDIT: Here is the AAVSO alert notice:

Facebook Immortals?

May 14, 2022

I try to remember to light a candle each year on my mother’s and father’s birthday. Today (May 14), it was for Dad, and he would have been 91.

On August 17th this year, it will be 20 years since Mum died (four days before her 74th birthday). On January 7th this year, it was 2 years since Dad died.

So, you can imagine my mild surprise when Facebook notified me that it was Dad’s birthday and invited me to post on his timeline. Apparently Facebook time stretches beyond this life…

I’ve noticed this phenomenon a number of times now. Of course, given concerns about “what social media knows about us” and “how it controls what we think” (to which I’m not entirely unsympathetic, but about which I have not yet succumbed to total paranoia), I suppose it’s comforting to know that Facebook hasn’t yet figured out whether or not an account owner is still alive. Seems like a not-too-crazy-hard application of traditional symbol systems AI to search death records etc and put two and two together though.

At some point in time, the living Facebook population may outnumber the non-living. Perhaps just in time for Facebook Metaverse v2.0: reanimation? That may be taking AI too far though. 😉

Still, I thought I’d take Facebook up on the invitation to post on Dad’s apparently eternal timeline. Given his particular sense of humour, and that he was a Uniting Church minister, I’m pretty sure he would have found it funny.

Where do pandemics come from?

March 19, 2022

If you actually want to create pandemics, then build factory farms.

Bird Flu: A Virus of our Own Hatching, Dr Michael Gregor (2006)

While it is true that many infectious diseases that have wreaked havoc on humans have come from animals, it is not entirely the case that ending the consumption of animals would put an end to such diseases. Limiting contact with animals, even assuming they are not being consumed by humans, would be necessary to lessen the chances that viruses and other pathogens transfer between species and infect humans.

Fact check: Is COVID-19 caused by human consumption of animals?

Large scale meat production increases the pandemic risk. Here are some videos that look at various aspects of the origin of pandemics.

A great video about the history and causes of pandemics

Once in awhile I’m not misanthropic…

March 13, 2022

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

(Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot)

I find it increasingly easy to be misanthropic now.

Climate action malaise.

Zoonotic diseases (e.g. COVID-19, Japanese Encephalitis Virus).

Rampant speciesism.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and who knows what country next.

All unnecessary. All preventable.

I find myself speaking about homo sapiens in the third person more and more, despite (obviously) being a deeply flawed member of that species.

Despite a willingness to be conciliatory, to be a glass half full kind of guy, to encourage open, honest conversation, some days, I find it really really hard to have any hope that our species will mature quickly enough to significantly mitigate the coming climate catastrophe or to avoid decades more unnecessary suffering and death of the members of many species, but especially those that members of species homo sapiens use and abuse.

Every so often though, my spirits are buoyed and hope seems possible. That happened recently, when I watched this video.

Having said that, I do tire of the us and them phrasing of the title of videos like this (“meat eater” vs “vegan”). The content is positive and respectful though.

But there will need to be many more such intellectually honest, respectful conversations, before my view of the future is likely to be significantly perturbed.

Earthling Ed and Eric have the quintessential open conversation