December 10 – Happy Birthday, Johannes Stöffler

Posted on December 10, 2014

Even though some “modern” scientific endeavors emerged over and over again around the world, even in ancient times (Archimedes, for example, looked for empirical evidence from experimentation, way back in the Ancient Greek civilization), a truly “modern” scientific viewpoint took centuries of cumulative effort and collaboration among Asian, African, and European civilizations to emerge. Back in the early days of the European Renaissance, alongside the blossoming of art came a flowering of science – partly because of Europeans' contact with Arab and Chinese peoples who were more advanced in many ways.

But the even the most esteemed scientists of that time were still at least partly entangled in pre-scientific thought. Superstition. Religious beliefs that claimed that humanity was central to the cosmos. Logical fallacies about causation.

Johannes Stöffler, born on this date in 1452, in what is now Germany, is a great example of a Renaissance-era scientist. He was a mathematician, astronomer, professor, and maker of astronomical instruments. He was also an astrologer and a priest. These days, you do not meet too many scientist / astrologer / priests! But back then it wasn't so very uncommon...

During his life, Stöffler made plenty of contributions: he made celestial globes and astronomical clocks, he wrote an almanac, he wrote a book about how to make and use an astrolabe (a device that helps locate and predict positions of the moon and planets), and he created astronomical tables. In 1518 Stöffler made a proposal for calendar reform – and his proposal ended up being the basis for the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced more than half a century later! This is the calendar used almost everywhere in the world today.

But he believed that astrological horoscopes could predict personality and events, and he also predicted an enormous flood, or deluge, would cover the entire world. He made the flood prediction in 1499, when he was 47 years old – a pretty good age to achieve, back then. The predicted date of the flood was February 20, 1524 (that's pretty specific!) – 25 years after he made the prediction. I wonder if he kinda sorta thought he would be dead by then?

When February 20, 1524, finally rolled around, and the worldwide deluge didn't occur, Stöffler was about still alive and 71 years old. I couldn't find any reports of what he said about his failed prediction. Perhaps a relieved “phew”? (Stöffler finally died of plague at age 78.)

Back in the 15th and 16th Centuries, when Stöffler was an astronomer and an astrologer, the two were pretty entangled. In a way, astrology was the beginning of astronomy. But today we have a sharp line between the science of astronomy and the pseudoscience (in other words, the NOT-science) of astrology:

Astronomy is the science of the universe and its contents, outside of the Earth's atmosphere. Astronomers examine positions, motions, and properties of planets, moons, stars, and other “celestial objects.”

Astrology is a pseudoscience. It claims to study how the positions, motions, and properties of celestial objects affect people and events on Earth.

Astronomy is always evolving, honing its description of the universe based on the latest observations – made with better telescopes and additional instruments, some of them above our disruptive atmosphere, and some even on spaceships far from Earth.

Astrology clings to a zodiac and birth signs created thousands of years ago, when the stars were literally in different positions in the sky (because the Earth wobbles on its axis, with the axis moving one degree every 72 years). IF planets and stars really did influence people at the moment that they were born, as astrology claims, astrologers should update the birth signs assigned to each birthdate. But they don't – even when the outdated birth signs were pointed out to them. Tradition is more important than observed fact.

Astronomers make predictions, generally very precise predictions such as “the sun will be eclipsed by the moon at this exact location at this exact time,” or “the Big Bang should still be detectable as a microwave background 'hum' detectable in all directions, with a spectrum that matches that of a black body.” When a particular prediction is fulfilled, the theory behind the prediction is maintained. When a particular prediction is proven false, the theory is ditched. This makes the science falsifiable – astronomers will update their understanding of the cosmos when new evidence comes to light, and they will let go of ideas that prove to be incorrect.

Astrologers also make predictions. However, they tend to be very general and “mooshy,” almost guaranteed to come true. For example, my horoscope for the week says that this week is a social time for me – that I might see an increase in events and parties. This prediction came true – I already went to a festive luncheon this week, and another party looms at the end of the week. On the other hand, this sort of prediction is probably true of most Americans in December – it's called Christmas and other winter holidays! I also read the prediction that I may be taking two long or short trips, OR I may decide to enter a college or university, OR I may decide to market something, perhaps on the internet, OR I may decide to take new classes to further my career. With all those “ors” and “mays,” you'd think this so-called prediction couldn't miss – but actually I didn't do, sign up for, or decide to do any of that stuff!

Sometimes astrologers make really specific predictions. Remember how surprised I was that our birthday boy, Stöffler, predicted the exact day and month of the worldwide flood – from 25 years out! However, whether the predictions are general or specific, when the predictions fail, astrology does not change any of its procedures for making future predictions. The lack of change based on evidence – even based on failed predictions – is the biggest reason that astrology is a pseudoscience – basically, either a fraud or a fun pastime with no truth behind it – rather than a useful science.

Astronomers all over the world can check each others' work and discover the same sights and measurements. Their findings can be replicated – and therefore backed up – by others. There is no such thing as “Chinese astronomy” – Chinese people who are astronomers study and work in “astronomy,” just as American and Persian and English and every other nationality of astronomers.

Astrologers around the world use different zodiacs and procedures to make predictions, and therefore come with different “readings” and predictions. There is such a thing as Chinese astrology and Persian astrology and Western astrology. And they're all different.

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