Monday, December 7, 2020

Much Ado About Nothing

The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction coming up on December 21 continued to bug me, so I browsed around some more.  This video clip from the Astrophysics Group at the University of Exeter in the UK is one of the best things I found, especially for its information about binoculars and telescopes generally. 

If you're really interested, the University of Exeter Astrophysics Group will attempt to livestream the conjunction through their telescope, but as the narrator says, it's winter in the UK, and there's no telling whether weather will permit a viewing.  You can send them your email address through their website, and they'll notify you when the livestream will be tried.

But the video still doesn't explain, to my satisfaction anyway, why this conjunction is so significant.  The closest it comes is to note that "the aim is to see both Jupiter and Saturn together in the same field of view."  That doesn't seem like a big deal to me; nor does it explain why such conjunctions would have caused excitement for most of human history, before the telescope was invented.  I understand the fascination of eclipses, comets, meteor showers -- events which cause changes in the sky in real time, and which make a more distinct spectacle.  The narrator, Professor Matthew Bate, says that the livestream will include a commentary, which indicates that without a knowledgeable guide a layperson would not see much of interest even through a telescope.

The DQ, or Dementia Quotient, of the comments, isn't extremely high.  Bate responds kindly to the most explicit one:

Wow!   Very excited about this Great Conjunction, heralding in the very earliest stages of the birth of the New Age.  Your video is wonderful and explains everything so easily and so clearly. At last somebody,  somewhere is showing us what to look for in the sky.
Thank you so very much for this.  Will be watching it again and again.  xx

Of course this conjunction heralds in nothing of the kind.  Similar, even closer alignments have happened numerous times for millennia without initiating new epochs or anything else.  (I suddenly remembered that a great Reset, as some other commenters call it, was supposed to happen in, I think, the 1980s.  New Age groups were very excited about it, but nothing happened and it sank into oblivion as most failed predictions do.  The Village Voice published a big article in the aftermath; I'll try to remember what the event was called, maybe I can track it down.

I point this out because it confirms my suspicion that the real "significance" of conjunctions belongs to astrology, not astronomy.  That astronomers are talking it up indicates that the field hasn't entirely left its astrological history behind.  As I looked for more reasons to take the Great Conjunction seriously, more and more astrological sites turned up in my search.  This one, for example, bills itself as Science Frontiers Online.  The post acknowledges that past conjunctions have stirred up a lot of anticipation, but brought forth zilch.  Nevertheless:

This does not mean that historical upheavals are never correlated with planetary conjunctions. If a society believes strongly enough in the power of the stars and planets to shape human destiny, events may be correlated with the heavens. Such was the case in ancient China.

    In China, the "Mandate of Heaven" concept has been used since ancient times as both a framework for history and a guide to future actions. The basic idea is that Heaven awards ruling power to a sage-king because of his virtue. His descendants remain as Earthly deputies until they become corrupted, whereupon outraged Heaven gives signs in the sky that the Mandate has passed on to a different sage-king to continue the cycle.

Three transfers of the Heavenly Man-date marked the beginnings of the Hsu, Shang, and Chou Dynasties. In fact, the tightest grouping of the five visible planets in the period from 3,000 B.C. to 5,000 A.D. (8,020 years!), occurred, on February 26, 1953 B.C., when they were aligned in a 4.33° arc. This was seen by the Chinese power brokers as a celestial command to begin a new social order. Thus was born the Hsu Dynasty. Similar, but looser, conjunctions ushered in the Shang Dynasty (December 20, L576 B.C.) and Chou Dynasty (May 28. L059 B.C.).

So, astrology can influence human destiny, if humans believe in it strongly enough. 
If you believe that the novel coronavirus is a hoax, that belief may affect your behavior, but that doesn't prove your belief true, as numerous people have learned to their sorrow.

The Astronomy Domine blog also turns out to be an astrological site, and its discussion of conjunctions relies on astrological assumptions.  It has charts and lots of numbers, which is a handy reminder that numbers and calculations may not prove anything or have any meaning, no matter how impressive they look.  This article, which has some historical interest, is from an astronomical journal, but it refers to astrological interpretations of conjunctions.  It seems, then, that fascination with the Great Conjunction is at best a hangover from astronomy's astrological roots.

The Old Farmer's Almanac has a nice post on the Great Conjunction by astronomer Bob Berman, noting that some say that "the two giant planets will seemingly merge into a single star or rare double planet."

The truth? Well, if you skipped your last optometrist appointment, you might indeed perceive the two planets as a single brilliant object.

But those with normal vision should see them extremely close together, but as separate-looking “stars,” with Jupiter brilliant and Saturn as merely bright. Let’s call it a “double planet.” No matter...

The writer stresses that the two planets will be visible in the same telescopic field, so that seems to be the main if not only payoff to the event.

But remember, this is not an occurrence that’s threatening in any way. They seem close together, but Saturn is actually far behind Jupiter—twice as distant, in fact—so those giant worlds are actually nowhere near each other.

This is so much better than prattle about the two gas giants sidling up for "a close slow dance."  Aside from the fact that they won't move visibly, that bit implies that there is some interaction between them, as between the members of a slow-dancing couple. Part of the problem might be that many working scientists have no idea how to talk to laypeople about their highly abstract or rarefied subjects, so they just talk down to us.  Bob Berman and Matthew Bate show that it's not necessary; go, O scientists, and do likewise.