The Emperor's New Zodiac

The Great Precession War in the Media of 2011

Jan 18, 2011

There was a curious side-effect during the big planetary storm of January 2011. All of a sudden, there were really obnoxious stories on the TV news and the Internet proclaiming "All your zodiac sun signs are wrong!" and "Scientists discover a 13th sign of the zodiac!" and other inflammatory comments. In days, the story went viral, being picked up by every news outlet in the country that had 30 seconds to fill with a snarky story. The high point for me was the opening monologue of Craig Ferguson on Jan 13, a long comedic rant on late night TV about precession. (That's got to be a first!). However, as my friend pointed out, this latest round of astrology bashing in the media can actually be traced back to my home town newspaper, the Minneapolis-St. Paul StarTribune.

On Jan 10, "the Strib" printed an article (in the Variety section) with the headline "The stars might not actually be aligned in your favor". Written by staff writer Bill Ward (email address:, in case you're interested) based on an interview with Professor Parke Kunkle, the article claimed 1) the dates of all the sun signs are wrong and need to be adjusted, and 2) astrologers have overlooked a "new zodiac sign" called Ophiuchus, plus 3) the usual snide remarks about how silly astrology (and the people who believe in it) really is. The article included a list of the new dates for these 13 zodiac signs. (The lovely graphic next to this list has a tree with pictures of the standard 12 signs on the branches -- couldn't fit in the 13th on short notice, I suppose...)

First off, with all due deference to Professor Kunkle, he's quite clueless when he starts talking about astrology. His qualifications to pontificate include teaching a fine astronomy course at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), the local tech school here in town, and being a board member of the Minnesota Planetarium Society. MCTC is not exactly known as a hotbed of leading astronomical research.

The crux of his argument is our good ol' friend, precession. As you can tell from my essay on precession, this is a favorite topic of mine, though I really hate the arguments and heated emotions that it provokes. First of all, he confuses the zodiac signs of the tropical zodiac with the constellations or star patterns of the same name. Of course these two diverge over time, due to precession, and on this basis he starts adjusting the dates for "sun signs" by about a month. Sorry, our current calendar and the tropical zodiac don't do that. The other confusion is his definition of a constellation, namely the IAU boundaries drawn up by a committee of astronomers back in the 1920's, something the ancient astronomers knew nothing about when they created the zodiac. (You can't know something that doesn't exist yet.) Based on this territorial idea of constellation, he sneaks in that 13th "sign", which causes even more dates to shift.

The trouble is, his argument has more holes than you can shake a stick at. In fact, he commits nearly every factual error and faulty reasoning typically found in a precession discussion. I guess having a PhD is no immunity against the sloppy thinking that comes with these discussons.

The part I don't understand is why the Strib considered this hot, breaking news. Astrologers know all his arguments and why they don't apply. My initial reaction when I saw the first TV stories was some unprintable version of "Oh, not again!" Considering how heated and distraught some people's reactions were to this "news", even people who should know better, you wonder at their motivation. Maybe they didn't mean anything beyond having a good laugh at someone else's expense (this was the Variety section), but they started a firestorm. And since it's gone viral, there's no stuffing the genie back in the bottle.

(Ironically, on page 5 of the Variety section, nestled among the comics, is your standard Daily Horoscope column. No Ophiuchus.)

We'll pick up the discussion shortly, because this article is wrong in some interesting ways. But first I'd like to repeat my attempt to communicate with the reporter, Bill Ward, about the more factual shortcomings of his piece. I tried to stay professional, but I think I got carried away -- easy to do when you're peaved. I didn't even try to argue the purely astrological parts of the issue, since it was apparent from his fluff article that he considers it bunk. It's sort of like tilting at windmills...

My Email to Reporter Bill Ward:

Dear Mr. Ward,

This email is in regards to your "new zodiac" article that appeared in the Jan 10 Variety section. Before dismissing me as just another kook, let me describe my own qualifications up front. I first became interested in astronomy in the second grade and have been studying the field, as well as science in general, for nearly 5 decades now. I graduated with a degree in mathematics, physics and computer science. I also did 3 years of graduate studies in advanced mathematics, which included working as a teaching assistant for undergraduate mathematics classes. Yes, I graded student's homework papers and tests, in addition to teaching. I have also been an astrologer for over 40 years. One of my specific interests is the history of ideas in astronomy/astrology in ancient times, a topic I've been researching for several decades now. If you want to examine some of my research, I would direct you to an online essay I wrote back in 2003 that deals with precession and the nature of the zodiac; see:

So unlike most astrologers and scientists, I have backing in both fields, which puts me in a unique position. When a friend of mine handed me your article over the weekend, I was amazed at how much factual error and misinformation could be packed into such a short article. These errors include historical and scientific errors, not to mention plain old faulty reasoning, as well as a complete misunderstanding or ignorance of the foundations of western astrology (which is all too common in the mainstream media these days). I'm also curious as to why you would describe your interview with Professor Kunkle (who can hardly be considered some kind of international expert on the topic) as some kind of hot, breaking news. Astrologers have known about these issues for centuries; my 2003 essay addresses every one of the questionable assumptions in your interview. The Ophiuchus "story" is actually a hoax that has been floating around since the 1990's. It must have been a slow news day.

I won't address the specifically astrological objections to your argument, as they are probably not of interest to you, except for one glaring error in logical reasoning expressed by Prof. Kunkle. There's a hidden assumption in his argument that nouns like "Leo" or "Pisces" have only one, well-defined definition. In fact, I identified in my essay that such words have at least 4 distinct definitions, depending upon the context of discussion. These are: 1) the tropical zodiac signs (used in western astrology), 2) sidereal zodiac signs (used in the astrology of India), 3) the "picture" of a constellation, namely the imaginary pattern of stars in the sky that constitute a mythic picture, 4) the "territory" of a constellation contained in the arbitrary borders of these imaginary patterns as defined by astronomers. In my experience, all "precession arguments" (and I've been involved in many of them over the years) typically boil down to a confusion of these definitions. Kunkle is using definition 4 as authoritative, assuming that astrologers agree with him, which they most emphatically don't. Confusing 1 and 4 is begging for trouble, which is why his argument is so silly. He needs to study astrological principles first before he starts criticizing a field he knows nothing about. If you had bothered to get a second opinion by interviewing an astrologer as well, you might have written a more balanced article. A glaring error in logical reasoning like this is unconscionable for someone claiming to be "scientific".

Let me also mention a major historical error in your article that you should have caught if you'd done any fact checking ahead of time. I refer to the asterisk after the name Ophiuchus on your list of new dates on page E2 for "Your Real Horoscope". The footnote says, "Discarded by the Babylonians because they wanted 12 signs per year." In case you haven't noticed, constellations are not objective realities in the sky, but the product of human imagination and thus they have a history. The first reference to a system of constellations in Babylonian cuneiform texts dates to about 1100 BCE, when roughly 30 constellations were mentioned in the socalled Mul-Apin texts. Their first references to a "zodiac" appears around 700 BCE. Over in Greece at the same time, texts such as Homer are almost devoid of astronomical references: only 2 constellations, a few prominent stars and the Pleiades cluster are mentioned. Greek texts don't start talking about constellations until about 400 BCE, when Greek astronomers borrowed the Babylonian system in toto and then added a few more of their own invention to bring the total up to 48 constellations. One of these additions is the constellation Ophiuchus, said to represent the mythical figure Aesclepius, a thoroughly Greek figure. The Babylonians could hardly have "discarded" a constellation from their system that hadn't even been invented at that time.

(I suspect that the Babylonians' prejudice with the number 12 is more mathematical in nature. After all, they are the people that invented the concept of "a circle has 360 degrees" and used a base 60 number system for their arithmetic.)

When I checked into your dates for the "new signs" by comparing the positions of the Sun on these dates with the astronomical star map I keep on the wall over my computer desk, I was amused to find they corresponded to the Sun's passage over the boundary lines (definition 4) for constellations in a mindless fashion. Let me explain the history of these boundary lines. Since Greek times, astronomers have added numerous new constellations to the list up to modern times, with almost 100 of them by the early 1900's. In the 1920's, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) formed a committee to straighten out this mess. The drew up a map of the sky that included 88 constellations, drawing highly gerrymandered boundary lines between them along strict north-south and east-west directions. In the process they deleted a number of constellations (yes, constellations can be decommissioned and thrown away!) and broke up several old star patterns into distinct constellations. In fact, the ancient Ophiuchus is now broken up into 3 separate pieces, as is the mythical ship Argo. It was the work of these astronomers in the 1920's that constitutes a formal specification of definition 4.

Which would have been meaningless to ancient astronomers. Besides, it's ridiculous to assume that the IAU should be the ruling authority on matters in the "occult sciences" (such as zodiac signs). I can't begin to communicate to you how stupid that notion sounds to me.

(Another footnote: Due to precession, these boundary lines are no longer strictly N-S and E-W and the discrepency is getting worse by the year. Someday, the IAU is going to need to redraw this map.)

By the way, if you extend Kunkle's argument further, he missed the opportunity to introduce a 14th "sign" in the same way. The Sun's path crosses the corner of another constellation for a few days in the middle of its passage through Leo's territory, a constellation called Sextans the Sextant, which is just south of Leo. Of course, this one wasn't invented until 1687, so maybe the Babylonians can be excused for discarding this one as well. However, after the "Ophiuchus fiasco", they should have expected the IAU to pull a trick like this.

I could go on and on, since there's apparently an endless number of errors in this story. Suffice it to say, I'm disappointed in the superficial level of journalism in this article and all the factual errors and misinformation it perpetuates. The issue is compounded by the fact that this little "fluff piece" of yours has now gone viral in the international media, so there's no way these errors can be addressed and corrected adequately at this late date. Rather than being a thoughtful and informative piece, it comes across as simply another one of those "astrology bashing" articles that the media love to promote every few years. I sincerely hope you exercise better journalistic standards if this topic ever comes up in the future.

Martin Bulgerin

P.S. -- If this article had been an answer on a student test from one of my undergraduates, I would have given you and Professor Kunkle a failing grade on the exam.

Reply from Bill Ward:

Thanks for writing.

(So, that went well...)

Signs and Constellations

OK, so let's pick up the story again and fill in some of the juicy details. The devil is always in the details, especially when the topic is precession.

Zodiac Words are Ambiguous

The biggest blindspot in thinking that I've noticed in any precession discussion is purely a linguistic one. The zodiacal nouns, the words "Aries" to "Pisces", are highly ambiguous: they have multiple meanings or definitions, each refering to totally distinct concepts. Yet many people seem to believe that these words are perfectly well defined in a unique way. All the other meanings are either ignored or unthinkable. Even worse, they assume the person they are arguing with (all too often me) must also mean the same thing by these words. Such misunderstandings make the other person sound totally crazy. In particular, you need to see the difference between "signs" and "constellations", two totally different concepts that are often conflated.

As discussed in my essay, I've identified at least 4 distinct definitions for any of the zodiac nouns:

  1. Tropical Signs: These are 30 segments of the ecliptic (the apparent path of the Sun in the sky), starting with the current (or "true") vernal equinox position, aka "the First Point of Aries" or zero Aries. This is a purely geometric definition that doesn't rely on any reference to the stars. Western astrology uses tropical signs.
  2. Sidereal Signs: These are also 30 degree segments of the ecliptic, but they start from where the equinoctial point was centuries ago relative to the stars. Sidereal signs and tropical signs of the same name are displaced relative to each other, a relationship I call the ayanamsa formula. The term "sidereal zodiac" is a bit of a misnomer, since there are multiple sidereal zodiacs in use around the world, with different positions in the sky for zero Aries, based on different ayanamsas. The geometry here is not as well defined as with the tropical zodiac. Sidereal astrology uses sidereal signs.
  3. Picture of a Constellation: The traditional idea of a constellation is a group of stars that form a picture of some object or mythical figure in human imagination. These pictures are indicated in modern star charts by drawing imaginary connecting lines between individual stars to make some kind of stick figure, although many older maps used more realistic drawings. These pictures don't actually exist in the sky: you can't see real lions and scorpions and bulls with a telescope. All we see are the stars; the pictures are an illusion. Unfortunately, it seems no two star charts draw these stick figures the same way, so the question of whether a given star is part of the picture or not is quite ambiguous.
  4. Territory of a Constellation: Formally speaking, these are the boundary lines drawn on a star map that separate one constellation from another, as laid down by the IAU back in the 1920's. There are many stars and other objects "in" the territory of a constellation that aren't part of the picture or stick figure. While these boundaries are precisely defined, they are still completely arbitrary and gerrymander around in some crazy ways. There is no simple geometric specification of these boundaries. Note well: these boundaries are man-made, not natural.
Notice the equators, poles, ecliptics, equinoxes and solstices that astronomers use to define their coordinate systems for measuring positions of celestial objects are exactly the same in tropical astrology. Except for the tendency to divide the 360 degrees of the ecliptic up into 12 signs with funny names, astronomy and astrology use the same system to measure planetary positions. This system is based on the earth's motions, not constellations (roughly speaking).

The ambiguity and nonsense related to these words leads to situations where the following sentences can all be true simultaneously:

This absurdity is resolved by noting that we are using definitions 4, 3 and 1 respectively for the zodiac nouns in these sentences. These various concepts all refer to distinct areas of the sky: Leo is not a Leo is not a Leo... In general, I try to explicitly say which of the 4 definitions I'm using when I use a zodiac noun unless the context is absolutely clear.

In the Strib article, he uses the word "sun signs" to mean territory of a constellation (#4), which is wrong. And even though a western astrologer thinks of signs as tropical signs (#1), the assumption is that we're confused and also really mean #4. No, we mean tropical signs.

A similar ambiguity surrounds words like "equinox" and "solstice", which can mean either the date on the calendar when the seasons change or the spatial position where the Sun lies when the seasons change. I had one particularly angry emailer a year ago that couldn't understand that conundrum. Look it up in the dictionary...

What's Really Moving?

The concept of relative motion drives people nuts, even though modern physics doesn't make sense without it. It's impossible to say whether an object is "really" moving or standing still ("absolute motion"), only motion of one object relative to another object or to an observer can be defined reasonably. The habits of Newtonian physics die slowly.

Precession can most easily be defined as the relative motion of the stars and the equinox and solstice points of the ecliptic. The trouble starts when you begin assuming one of these systems is moving and the other is standing still. It's easy to imagine the stars stand still and the earth moves in our modern (post-Copernican) way of looking at things, but such a statement involving absolute motion can't be justified. Observationally, under the hidden assumption that the oberver is stationary on the earth's surface, the stars appear to move and the equinoxes stand still, which is why the Ptolemaic universe was accepted for so many centuries. In astrology, planetary motions are measured relative to the tropical zodiac: planets move or transit through the signs. Lately, I prefer to think of stars as also transiting through the tropicial zodiac, though most authors say the equinox moves (relative to the stars) instead. Either point of view is heuristically useful, but conceptually very misleading.

The question of what's really moving and standing still is a false choice. When you give up the illusion of absolute motion, the two positions are really one. It's not rocket science, but it helps to be an Einstein!

The only reason I mention this issue is a subtle, unconscious bias it tends to bring to people's thinking. Based on the assumption that something is "really standing still", it seems more permanent, solid, basic and more real than the moving thing to us. It's not rational, but everyone seems to do it. The world is split between people that think the constellations are "more real" and those that think the equinoxes, etc. based on the earth's motions are. Or as I joke, the world of imaginary pictures is more objective than merely subjective hard-core geometry. It's essentially a quasi-religious battle that has no resolution. But such biases can really derail a precession discussion very quickly.

Tropical Signs Don't Move in the Calendar

The Gregorian calendar, the one we use today, is based on tropical years, the amount of time it takes for the Sun to move from one vernal equinox time to the next. The equinox always happens around March 21. Since this equinox position corresponds to the start of the tropical sign Aries, the sign Aries always starts around March 21. Similarly for the dates of the other tropical signs. It doesn't matter which century you're in: tropical signs don't move around the Gregorian calendar. The dates for when the Sun enters a constellation (using the territory definition), on the other hand, most certainly does shift due to precession.

To be contrary, if we used a calendar based on sidereal years (which are slightly longer than tropical years, requiring more leap days to occur), then the dates for constellations would stay the same, while the dates of the tropical signs would shift. Of course, this kind of calendar wouldn't track the seasons very well. Given enough centuries, the first day of spring would fall on Christmas. Maybe this is why we don't use sidereal calendars.

In other words, the claim that "all the sun signs have shifted their dates" is (in part) based on a complete confusion of tropical and territorial concepts. If you're using tropical signs, this claim is utterly false.

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