- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

Avisitor to the country cottage owned by the famous physicist Niels Bohr was sur-

prised to see a horseshoe nailed over the door, and asked Bohr, “Surely you don’t believe in that?”

Bohr replied, “Of course not, but I understand that it brings good luck whether you believe in it or not.”

While the impish Bohr was presumably joking, Benson Bobrick takes very seriously the fundamental claim of astrology — that celestial bodies, like Bohr’s horseshoe, have a determining influence on individual human fate.

Mr. Bobrick, who has a PhD from Columbia University in English and Comparative Literature and has been described in the New York Times as “perhaps the most interesting historian writing today,” provides a sweeping demonstration in The Fated Sky: Astrology in History (Simon & Schuster, $26, 356 pages), his ninth book, of the power astrology has held over the minds of men for thousands of years.

In Mr. Bobrick’s words, “This is not a book for or against astrology, but a book about its impact on history and on the history of ideas.” Its 300-odd pages are full of accounts of how belief in astrology affected the behavior of major historical figures, and therefore the fate of both individuals and nations, regardless of whether that belief is true or false.

Traditional astrology was used in four different ways: mundane astrology gave predictions about such general phenomena as weather, harvests and politics; natal astrology used the positions of the heavenly bodies at the time of an individual’s birth to foretell his character and destiny; hortatory astrology cast a horoscope at a particular time to answer a question asked then; and finally, astrology was used for elections, determining the most propitious time to carry out a particular endeavor.

Mr. Bobrick provides a very brief account of the complicated theoretical structure upon which all of these activities were based. The structure dates back over 3,000 years — at least as far as the ancient Chaldeans and Babylonians — and was passed on via the Egyptians and the Greeks.

The 12 signs of the zodiac, familiar to anyone who has ever glanced at a horoscope in a newspaper, are named after different constellations, and are related to different sections of the sky. The 12 signs, in turn, are supposedly controlled by the seven planets, a term which, astrologically speaking, connotes the sun and the moon as well as what modern astronomy classifies as the five planets visible to the unaided eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.)

The planets beyond Saturn, discovered only after the invention of the telescope, play no part in classical astrology, although after their discovery some au courant astrologers began to take them into account in their horoscopes.

The author’s account, however, even though it is supplemented by a lengthy glossary defining many of the technical terms involved in, is inadequate to explain to the uninitiated reader exactly how the system works. Mr. Bobrick does not discuss the different versions of astrology practiced in China and other parts of the orient.

Most of the book consists of a series of entertaining accounts of the lives of astrologers and their clients through the ages. We all remember Shakespeare’s cautionary account of the fate of Julius Caesar when he failed to beware the ides of March, and Mr. Bobrick fills in many more details of the role astrology played in Caesar’s life, as well as those of many other figures of historical note, all the way through George W. Bush.

Mr. Bobrick, who regrets the dumbed-down version of astrology that predominates today, recounts many astonishing successes of predictions made by astrologers. He tells us that seven months before the 2004 presidential election, the traditional astronomer he asked to cast horoscopes for both candidates predicted a Bush victory, whereas most modern astrologers went with Sen. Kerry.

Modern science, and in particular, astronomy, developed when investigators gave up the more ambitious aims of astrology and adopted the more modest aim of using mathematical and experimental tools to examine how the natural world actually behaved.

In Chasing Hubble’s Shadows: The Search for Galaxies at the Edge of Time (Hill and Wang, $24, 185 pages), the scientific journalist Jeff Kanipe takes us to the frontiers of today’s astronomy, where astronomers use an armory of sophisticated tools and techniques to peer at dimly visible galaxies astonishingly far away and far back in time.

Their ability to do so has been magnified greatly since the launch (or, rather, the repair a few years later) of the Hubble Space Telescope, an unparalleled resource appropriately named after Edwin Hubble, the man whose painstaking observations in the 1920s and 1930s of distant galaxies showed that the universe was expanding.

The modern era of research into far galaxies began in 1975, when the Hubble telescope was focused for an extended period on a tiny area of the sky that appeared to be empty and took lengthy photographic exposures covering multiple wavelengths. This previously impossible level of scrutiny revealed several thousand previously unknown galaxies, each an assemblage of millions of stars. The area chosen was so far away that it provided a snapshot of the universe early in its development, relatively soon after the primeval Big Bang.

Mr. Kanipe brings the reader up to date on what astronomers have been doing to learn about these galaxies and the early development of the universe — a task made even more difficult because during a significant length of time the high temperature meant that no radiation could penetrate it, meaning that it is inaccessible to observation.

The two great scientific mysteries of the age are that most of the universe seems to consist of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” the terms used to describe our ignorance of the nature of most of the energy that holds the universe together and the matter of which it is constructed, neither of which corresponds to the forms of energy and matter which we observe around us.

Mr. Kanipe has provided a first-rate account of these mysteries and of how dauntless scientists go about trying to solve them.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.


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