I was born a Capricorn (please don’t judge me), but the Sun was in the middle of Sagittarius when I was born.
As a professor emeritus of astronomy, I am often asked about the difference between astrology and astronomy. The practice of astrology, which predicts one’s fate and fortune based on the positions of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets, dates back to ancient times. It was intermingled with the science of astronomy back then – in fact, many astronomers of old made scientific observations that are valuable even today. But once Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo realized the planets orbit the Sun, rather than the Earth, and Newton discovered the physical laws behind their behavior, astrology and astronomy split, never to be reunited.
The science of astronomy is now at odds with one of the basic organizing principles in astrology – the dates of the zodiac.
The constellations of the zodiac
Over the course of a year, the Sun appears to pass through a belt of sky containing 12 ancient constellations, or groupings, of stars. They are collectively called the zodiac and consist almost entirely of animal figures, like the ram (Aries), crab (Cancer) and lion (Leo). It is a disappointment to many that the constellations only rarely look like what they represent. How could they, since they are truly random scatterings of stars? They are meant to represent, not to portray.
Although the constellations of the zodiac, which date back to Mesopotamia or before, may seem definitive, they are only one example of those produced by the various cultures of the world, all of which had their own, frequently very different, notions of how the sky is constructed. The Incas, for example, made constellations not from stars, but from the dark patches in the Milky Way.
The number of constellations in the Western zodiac comes from the cycles of the Moon, which orbits the Earth 12.4 times a year. Roughly speaking, the Sun appears against a different constellation every new Moon, the stars forming a distant backdrop to the Sun. Though the stars are not visible during daytime, you can know what constellation the Sun is in by looking at the nighttime sky. There you will see the opposite constellation.
Astrology suggests that each sign of the zodiac fits neatly into a 30-degree slice of sky – which multiplied by 12 adds up to 360 degrees. In actuality, this is not the case, as the constellations vary a great deal in shape and size. For example, the Sun passes through the constellation Scorpio in just five days, but takes 38 days to pass through Taurus. This is one of the reasons astrological signs do not line up with the constellations of the zodiac.
Precession of the equinoxes
The main reason astrological signs fail to line up with the zodiac, though, is a wobble in the Earth’s rotational axis called precession. As a result of its rotation, the Earth bulges slightly at the equator, not unlike…
Read More: Why Your Zodiac Sign Is Probably Wrong