Lucky number 13

Are you an Ophiuchan? Alan Coughlan looks into the implications of the recently introduced thirteenth star sign50 light years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus, there is a diamond 4,000 km across. It is the former heart of a now dead star, known as a white dwarf. The entire piece would be ten billion trillion trillion carats.Closer to home, within the atmosphere of Jupiter, the storm known as the great red spot contains wind speeds up to 618 km per hour. The surface temperature of Venus is so hot (at over 460ºC) that lead would easily melt there.These are three of an unknown amount of facts about ongoing phenomena in space. It is the most fascinating realm in all of science and astronomers continue to reveal more of its secrets daily.The astrologers (not scientists let’s be clear) would have you believe that Mars is a warrior and instigator of arguments, and that Jupiter represents a gentle disposition in people. As Carl Sagan has pointed out, far from being a fringe practice, practically every newspaper in the western world carries daily columns on astrology. Do most, if any, deal with astronomy on a regular basis?As cynical as many may be about astrology, the number of people who consult their horoscopes before going about their day is frightening. The premise being that for someone, their destiny is effectively written in the stars.For this idea to hold water, one would hope for an airtight system that makes predictions that can be tested through to conclusion. With twelve signs of the Zodiac encompassing all days of the year, every person is covered. However, to my mind, this would mean they are saying there are only twelve types of people out there. Twelve types of people all experiencing much the same as their zodiac brothers and sisters every day. Is there enough good fortune on any one day to be spread to that many people, or indeed, that much good luck in romance?Dara Ó Briain and Professor Brian Cox got into some trouble recently when they openly insulted the practice of astrology live on BBC, by saying: “In the interest of being balanced, we should say that astrology is a load of rubbish.”The Astrological Association of Great Britain got up in arms about these comments launching complaints to the BBC. Their claim is that they have suffered unfair treatment. As Rebecca Watson (ardent sceptic) pointed out, their comments were broadcast on a science program where a pseudoscientific practice should hardly get a mention.The haphazard nature of the practice was brought to widespread public attention quite recently when it was suggested that the constellation Ophiuchus should be included amongst the twelve Zodiac signs. Panic set in amongst Astrologers that the signs would effectively be moved throughout the calendar. I myself would now be a Pisces as opposed to Aries.This idea is nothing new as Stephen Schmidt suggested a 14th sign zodiac back in 1970, which included Cetus as a sign. The internet became awash with concerned followers of the zodiac worried about what bearing this now had on their lives. The logical solution in my mind would be that they could abandon astrology altogether, since technically they had been following the wrong advice since they began their stargazing.A wonderful example of the tenuous nature of astrology was exposed in a small experiment by James Randi and also repeated four years ago by Derren Brown. They got a group of people to submit data about when they were born. They were then lead to believe that an astrologer had written up specific descriptions of each person based on these details.Each participant was issued an envelope with their personality description and asked to rate it for accuracy. An overwhelming majority of participants rated the descriptions as 90 per cent accurate or higher.The ruse was then revealed when they were asked to swap papers with their neighbour and read the other descriptions. Every person in the group had been issued the same character description. Through clever and ambiguous use of language and open-ended descriptions of character, astrologers can appeal to people’s self image and win them over. The reader simply filters out any inaccuracies and focuses on what they feel best describes their character.Space for me remains an awe-inspiring place and not a realm for magic or spiritual entities that influence my life. I for one would rather a column in the daily papers informing me where to look for a meteor shower or when exactly we might be able to go and get a piece of that giant diamond.