Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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Some of the greatest minds in the history of human science are Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Isaac Newton.
These men did certain work, concerning certain observational data, for certain motivations. They were five great Astrologers.
Running an article on the nature and development of astrology in this magazine - or any other magazine directed primarily to a technically oriented readership - calls for some explanation. It has been thoroughly, solidly, completely established, for a couple of centuries now, that astrology is superstitious nonsense.
Since that solid decision is now a couple of centuries old, and is flatly in contradiction of five of the keenest minds the human race is known to have produced, it is at least reasonable to review the decision at this point and see if modern data does, in fact, confirm the now centuries-old conclusions (be it remembered that, in essence, an "old superstition" is a conclusion reached by people several centuries previously, without adequate grounds, and which has not been rationally reviewed since. In that sense, the proposition "Astrology is superstitious nonsense" is itself a superstition!).
The two areas of research that most fascinated Isaac Newton were astrology and alchemy. Through a long period of the Renaissance the most able technically inclined minds of Mankind were engaged in studies of astrology and alchemy.
Alchemy - in the sense of the search for the Philosopher's Stone, and the transmutation of base metals to gold - proved a complete bust. Transmutation we now know is perfectly possible... but not by any chemical manipulation. The Philosopher's Stone was a completely false goal.
Astrology broke down into something considered quite different - Astronomy. We now say that Tycho Brahe was a great astronomer, and that those other great men were also early astronomers.
Were they? They didn't say so! To decide the question, we must, first, get some sort of a definition of the difference between "astrology" and "astronomy". You think you can do that easily? Oh... "Astrology is that superstitious nonsense about predicting future events on Earth by studying the positions of the stars and planets".
And how do the United States government agencies set about predicting the tides? By astrology - if that's the definition of Astrology.
Oh... that's different, because that's simple gravitational force computation? You mean, then, "it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it!".
Then Kepler couldn't help being an astrologer. Since gravity hadn't been defined at the time he was doing his work, when he computed tides by studying the aspects of the Sun and Moon, he was an astrologer. A later computer predicting tides by studying the aspects of the Sun and Moon, however, would not be an astrologer, even though he did exactly the same things, because he knew that gravity existed. That it?
Hm-m-m... and what is this "gravity"? Is it anything like "elan vital" or phlogiston? They explained observed phenomena also, though, at the time, they could not themselves be defined.
No, somehow that doesn't satisfy. The modern computer uses Kepler's laws, and the laws of that later, greater astrologer, Newton, and essentially not only does what Kepler did, but does it the way Kepler did.
It seems to me the real difference is purely subjective - which is why the oh-so-strictly-objective scientist doesn't care to try to define the difference. The difference is purely a matter of motivation - not of action nor of process. If Q. Publicus killed B. Marcus by running him through with his short sword, was Q. Publicus a murderer? No, Q. Publicus was the executioner designated by his Centurion to dispose of B. Marcus, traitor. Murder is determined not by action nor by method, but by motive.
And even that differentiation can get a bit subtle at times. Most alchemists got into the business partly from pure curiosity - basic research - and considerably for reasons of making money. The modern chemist gets into the business partly through the urge of pure curiosity, and partly to make a living. And the nuclear physicist is trying to perfect his transmutation techniques just as his ancestral alchemist was!
The error in alchemy was that they were trying to do a level of work that could not be handled until several centuries of additional, lower-level data had been accumulated. They were trying to enter the era of nucleonics before they'd learned what the elements were.
There were some three centuries of chemical engineering between where they were and where they thought they were - at the border of the nuclear era.
The astrologers were in somewhat the same position; they needed a very great deal more information about such fundamentals as celestial mechanics, nuclear physics, radiation physics, high-energy particle emission, ionic phenomena, magnetic field effects... oh, a very great deal! - before they could even begin to get some of what they thought they were ready for. And, of course, they had a lot of false ideas of what they could get anyway - just as the alchemists thought they could get the Philosopher's Stone.
Basically, Astrology started several millennia ago, when early men first observed the immense effect the cycles of the stars had on events here on Earth. The early Egyptians and Babylonians had no slightest conception of why the world grew colder when the cycle of the stars brought Orion rising in the east at twilight - or why the world grew wanner again when Lyra rose at dusk, and Orion was no longer visible.
Earliest civilized man observed a very simple, direct, and absolutely unchallengeable fact-of-nature. The movements of the stars predicted the changing of the climate with perfect reliability.
They had not the slightest notion why. But then, they didn't know why planting a seed caused a plant to come up. When the world is one vast collection of mysteries, the business of a wise man is to establish some sound, reliable correlations, letting the questions of why go until he has more information.
At that stage of history, Man was acutely aware that he had to learn how to make sense out of the Universe he found around him - not demand that the Universe make sense in his terms if it wanted him to accept it!
To us it is obvious that the perfect one-to-one correlation between the cycles of the stars and the climate on Earth was not an observation of a cause-effect relationship, but of two effects of a single cause. The clock may mark the time of sunrise, but that correlation doesn't prove the clock causes the sun to rise. Obvious... to us.
By the time man's first fairly complex high-level civilizations had built themselves, over many laborious centuries, the knowledge that the movements of the stars accurately predicted events on Earth was one of the unarguable established facts. As solidly proven as the fact that planting seeds was necessary to get a crop.
However... planting seeds, while necessary, is unfortunately not sufficient to assure a crop. Planting seeds is a Strong and Necessary Magic, and undeniably a very sound and Powerful Magic for crop-producing (and it's magic, bub... when you haven't, by several thousand years, reached the stage of building microscopes and ultracentrifuges and microchemical analytical systems capable of studying the immense complexities of RNA and DNA and cytoplasm and genetics). Just because a Magic doesn't work every time does not - very definitely not! - mean you should reject it as nonsense. Is there anything more supernaturally improbable than that this dry, withered, seemingly dead bit of woody stuff should turn itself somehow into an immense tree? Why, no tale of magical transformation out of the Arabian Nights ever surpassed that!
So... given the factual knowledge that the predictable cycles of the stars foretold the coming of events on Earth, it remained only to achieve more sophisticated methods of interpreting the patterns of star-movements to determine the finer details of events on Earth.
Now perhaps we can define an Astrologer as one who studies the stars to establish his conviction that human events on Earth can be predicted by the movements of the stars, and to perfect his ability thereby to predict human events more acutely.
An Astronomer studies the stars to determine what and where they are... because he wants to understand the stars.
As of the beginning of the Space Age, we can specify a third profession - the Astro-engineer, who studies the stars in order to predict what effects they are going to have on human engineering projects.
An engineer studying the possibilities of a tidal power project would be one example of astro-engineering.
Now be it noted that Alchemy has been dead and dishonored for a couple of centuries, and all sound, properly educated Scientists knew that Transmutation was Impossible, by 1880. Chemistry had, by then rejected in toto the concepts of alchemy - philosopher's stone, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, transmutation of the elements - the works.
So here we are transmuting elements, and aware that transmutation of the elements is the basic process that makes the Universe go round.
But here we are also being so amazingly astute and wise that we know for a positive fact that the positions of the planets has nothing whatever to do with any events here on Earth. Oh, the Moon, yes, of course! But what effect could Jupiter, or Saturn, or Mars have on human affairs? How could they possibly affect anything here on Earth? What nonsense to suggest that the relative positions of planets could have any meaning!
And then we have the work of John Nelson, Communications Engineer, who I suggest might well be classified as an Astro-engineer, who has learned to study the positions of the planets in order to predict their effects on human engineering problems.
That solar flares disrupted radio communications here on Earth was a readily ascertained fact - as soon as we had radio communications to be disrupted. Magnetic storms caused by solar flares had been raising hob with maritime navigation for centuries; a ship's compass points generally northward, unless there's a magnetic storm, in which case it's just as apt to point East, West, or if it has a chance, Straight Up. As long power lines were strung across the country, and telegraph and telephone lines, we learned a new aspect of the storms - they could induce perfectly deadly voltages and currents in long conductors.
John Nelson has shown - by making ninety-three per cent accurate predictions, when a time accuracy of +/-10 minutes at 5-day ranges - that the occurrence of solar flares can be predicted by observing the patterns of the planets.
Now this is something entirely new in observational science; it is a proven instance of a pattern having an effect that the elements of the pattern do not have. It's true that chemists ran into that phenomenon at the molecular level - CH3-O-CH3 has the same elements as CH3-CH2-OH but a radically different effect! - but to find that a pattern-arrangement of the planets has immensely significant effects that the planets themselves do not is a very different thing indeed.
And it means that a phenomenon has been demonstrated to be valid without anyone yet having been able to explain why it is valid. It works... and we don't know why.
I fear that, little as Science likes that situation, that is a problem that will arise through all the megayears of history yet to come. Obviously any time a really new phenomenon is stumbled on, it will have exactly that characteristic.
Nelson's work during the past seven years has been of immense value to the communications industry; his motivation in studying the stars and planets is not that of the astrologer, nor that of the astronomer. He's not interested in the stars and planets for their own sakes; he's interested in them as what I think we should call an astro-engineer - to find out how to arrange his engineering problem, long distance communications by radio, in view of the observed effects those bodies have.
When a solar flare lets loose, it would be quite appropriate to say that all Hell is out for noon. The article "Gravity Insufficient" by Hal Clement, in the November 1961 issue gave a discussion of what has been found out about solar flares and their effects. It's painfully clear that when a solar flare cuts loose, any man outside of Earth's atmosphere - and no man has yet gone outside; neither Russian nor American capsules were beyond the protective layers of the upper atmosphere - in any space-capsule present technology can lift off the ground would be a well cooked goose. If he were in an orbit at 100,000 miles - he'd have to be about that far out to get beyond the normal Van Allen belt - he'd have to spend days getting there, making one orbit, and getting back. If a flare occurred at any time during that period, he would be completely helpless.
A flare can develop in a period of about fifteen minutes. Eight minutes after it gets going, the X-radiation arrives at Earth's orbit, X-radiation of a hardness and intensity such that any shielding we could lift off the launching pad would be useless.
If the astro-or-cosmo-naut caught out in the solar storm started for home right then... it would be futile. Remember, the limitations of modern technology will mean he has to come in by using retrorockets to change his near-circular orbit to a grazing-ellipse orbit. And to get through the normal Van Allen belt safely, he must break his orbit at the right part of its 320,000 mile circumference and come in to the lower atmosphere through one of the magnetic-polar tunnels through the Van Allen radiations. He won't have rocket power enough to simply turn his ship around, blast for home on an emergency short-cut orbit, and get out of the solar storm.
It would take him a day or more on the fastest orbit home he could make.
Beginning a few minutes after the X rays arrive at the speed of fight, some extremely high-speed electrons will be showing up. They won't penetrate even the thin metal walls of a space-capsule... but the X rays generated when the walls do stop them will. Shortly after the fastest electrons will come the fastest nuclei-protons largely, traveling at very near light-speed. Gradually, the intensity of radiation will increase as the greater numbers of slower protons and electrons make the 93,000,000 mile trip from the Sun.
Long before the spaceman could get down even so far as the outer Van Allen belt, that belt would be enormously surcharged with trapped ions from the solar flare. The radiation in the belts would, by that time, be so deadly as to kill him in minutes if he did try penetrating.
Any astronaut caught off Earth in a modern space-capsule-or any in the foreseeable future of present technology - will be as dead as if he'd taken a swim on one of those swimming-pool reactors.
The space agencies of all nations will have to employ astro-engineers like John Nelson, who can predict what's going to happen to human engineering projects, by studying the pattern of positions of the planets.
One can imagine the shop-talk of a couple of astrogators in years ahead. "Well, on this run we had to get through before May 31st, or the line lost that contract for good. But look, we had Jupiter and Saturn practically dead-on at quadrature, with Mars in opposition to Saturn. Earth was neutral, and the only favorable planet we had was Venus in trine with Jupiter. So Harmonson, the damn fool, says sure we can make it, and accepts the run! With a planetary pattern like that he thinks he can get by without a flare, yet! So...".
They'll sound like astrologers. They certainly won't sound like astronomers - because astrogators won't be interested in the stars and planets for their own sweet sakes. They'll be very strictly practical in their interests; they won't care why certain planetary patterns trigger solar flares - but they'll have an acute personal interest in the fact that they do! They'll carefully consult the pattern of the planets to determine whether their aspects are propitious. If they've got Jupiter, Saturn and Mars situated 120° apart around the Sun, it'll be a milk run. The Sun doesn't flare, when those planets are 120° apart.
It was the alchemists, not chemists, who first learned to make oil of vitriol, and corrosive sublimate and aqua regia - and our modem technological culture would break down without the megatons of oil of vitriol we need.
It begins to look, now, as though it's time to go back and glean through astrology, with the vast funds of new knowledge and new techniques available.
We're damn well going to need astro-engineers in the next few decades!