Tag Archives: A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data

Archaeomagnetism, anomalies in space, and 3,000-year-old Babylonian bricks

While i don’t usually cover the topic of magnetic fields, this fascinating research required a combination of science and the humanities, a topic of some interest to me. First, there’s the news and then excerpts from Rae Hodge’s December 25, 2023 commentary “How 3,000-year-old Babylonian tablets help scientists unravel one of the weirdest mysteries in space” for Salon.

A December 19, 2023 University College London (UCL; also on EurekAlert but published December 18, 2023) explains how Babylonian artefacts led to a discovery about earth’s magnetic fields,

Ancient bricks inscribed with the names of Mesopotamian kings have yielded important insights into a mysterious anomaly in Earth’s magnetic field 3,000 years ago, according to a new study involving UCL researchers.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), describes how changes in the Earth’s magnetic field imprinted on iron oxide grains within ancient clay bricks, and how scientists were able to reconstruct these changes from the names of the kings inscribed on the bricks.

The team hopes that using this “archaeomagnetism,” which looks for signatures of the Earth’s magnetic field in archaeological items, will improve the history of Earth’s magnetic field, and can help better date artefacts that they previously couldn’t.

Co-author Professor Mark Altaweel (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “We often depend on dating methods such as radiocarbon dates to get a sense of chronology in ancient Mesopotamia. However, some of the most common cultural remains, such as bricks and ceramics, cannot typically be easily dated because they don’t contain organic material. This work now helps create an important dating baseline that allows others to benefit from absolute dating using archaeomagnetism.”

The Earth’s magnetic field weakens and strengthens over time, changes which imprint a distinct signature on hot minerals that are sensitive to the magnetic field. The team analysed the latent magnetic signature in grains of iron oxide minerals embedded in 32 clay bricks originating from archaeological sites throughout Mesopotamia, which now overlaps with modern day Iraq. The strength of the planet’s magnetic field was imprinted upon the minerals when they were first fired by the brickmakers thousands of years ago.

At the time they were made, each brick was inscribed with the name of the reigning king which archaeologists have dated to a range of likely timespans. Together, the imprinted name and the measured magnetic strength of the iron oxide grains offered a historical map of the changes to the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The researchers were able to confirm the existence of the “Levantine Iron Age geomagnetic Anomaly,” a period when Earth’s magnetic field was unusually strong around modern Iraq between about 1050 to 550 BCE for unclear reasons. Evidence of the anomaly has been detected as far away as China, Bulgaria and the Azores, but data from within the southern part of the Middle East itself had been sparse.

Lead author Professor Matthew Howland of Wichita State University said: “By comparing ancient artefacts to what we know about ancient conditions of the magnetic field, we can estimate the dates of any artifacts that were heated up in ancient times.”

To measure the iron oxide grains, the team carefully chipped tiny fragments from broken faces of the bricks and used a magnetometer to precisely measure the fragments.

By mapping out the changes in Earth’s magnetic field over time, this data also offers archaeologists a new tool to help date some ancient artefacts. The magnetic strength of iron oxide grains embedded within fired items can be measured and then matched up to the known strengths of Earth’s historic magnetic field. The reigns of kings lasted from years to decades, which offers better resolution than radiocarbon dating which only pinpoints an artefact’s date to within a few hundred years.

An additional benefit of the archaeomagnetic dating of the artefacts is it can help historians more precisely pinpoint the reigns of some of the ancient kings that have been somewhat ambiguous. Though the length and order of their reigns is well known, there has been disagreement within the archaeological community about the precise years they took the throne resulting from incomplete historical records. The researchers found that their technique lined up with an understanding of the kings’ reigns known to archaeologists as the “Low Chronology”.

The team also found that in five of their samples, taken during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II from 604 to 562 BCE, the Earth’s magnetic field seemed to change dramatically over a relatively short period of time, adding evidence to the hypothesis that rapid spikes in intensity are possible.

Co-author Professor Lisa Tauxe of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (US) said: “The geomagnetic field is one of the most enigmatic phenomena in earth sciences. The well-dated archaeological remains of the rich Mesopotamian cultures, especially bricks inscribed with names of specific kings, provide an unprecedented opportunity to study changes in the field strength in high time resolution, tracking changes that occurred over several decades or even less.”

The research was carried out with funding from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundatio

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Exploring geomagnetic variations in ancient Mesopotamia: Archaeomagnetic study of inscribed bricks from the 3rd–1st millennia BCE by Matthew D. Howland, Lisa Tauxe, Shai Gordin, and Erez Ben-Yosef. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) December 18, 2023 120 (52) e2313361120 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2313361120

This paper is behind a paywall.

The Humanities and their importance to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)

Rae Hodge’s December 25, 2023 commentary explains why magnetic fields might be of interest to a member of the general public (that’s me) and more about the interdisciplinarity, which drove the project, Note 1: This is a US-centric view but the situation in Canada (and I suspect elsewhere) is similar. Note 2: Links have been removed,

Among the most enigmatic mysteries of modern science are the strange anomalies which appear from time to time in the earth’s geomagnetic field. It can seem like the laws of physics behave differently in some places, with unnerving and bizarre results — spacecraft become glitchy, the Hubble Space Telescope can’t capture observations and satellite communications go on the fritz. Some astronauts orbiting past the anomalies report blinding flashes of light and sudden silence. They call one of these massive, growing anomalies the Bermuda Triangle of space — and even NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] is now tracking it. 

With all the precisely tuned prowess of modern tech turning its eye toward these geomagnetic oddities, you might not expect that some key scientific insights about them could be locked inside a batch of 3,000-year-old Babylonian cuneiform tablets. But that’s exactly what a recently published study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. 

This newly discovered connection between ancient Mesopotamian writing and modern physics is more than an amusing academic fluke. It highlights just how much is at stake for 21st-century scientific progress when budget-slashing lawmakers, university administrators and private industry investors shovel funding into STEM field development while neglecting — and in some case, actively destroying — the humanities.

… Despite advances in the past five years or so, archaeomagnetism is still methodologically complex and often tedious work, often cautious data sifting to arrive at accurate interpretations. The more accurate of which come from analyzing layers upon layers of strata. 

But when combined with the expertise of the humanities — from historians and linguists, to religious scholars and anthropologists? Archaeomagnetism opens up new worlds of study across all disciplines. 

In fact, the team’s results show that the strength of the magnetic field in Mesopotamia was more than one and a half times stronger than it is in the area today, with a massive spike happening sometimes between 604 B.C. and 562 B.C. By combining the results of archaeomagnetic tests and the transcriptions of ancient languages on the bricks, the team was able to confirm this spike likely occurred during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II.

Hand in hand with the sciences, the LIAA [Levantine Iron Age Anomaly] trail was illuminated by historical accounts of descriptively similar events, recorded from ancient authors as far west as the Iberian peninsula and well into Asia. Archaeomagnetism has now allowed researchers to not only confirm the presence of the LIAA in ancient Mesopotamia from 1050 to 550 B.C. — itself a first for science — but offers cultural historians a new way to verify and apply context to a vast tide of early scientific information.

Hodge further explores the importance of interdisciplinary work, December 25, 2023 commentary, Note: Links have been removed,

The symbiotic interdependence between the humanities and sciences deepens further in the thicket of time when one considers that the original locations of the team’s fragments likely include the earliest known centers of astrology and mathematics in Sumeria, such as Nineveh near modern-day Mosul, Iraq. At the ancient city’s royal library of the Assyrian Empire, a site dating back to around 650 B.C., a trove of thousands of tablets were excavated in the mid-1800s containing precise astronomical data surpassing that found in any previous discovery.

Among those, the “The Plough Star” tablets bear inscriptions dating to 687 B.C. and are the first known instances of humans tracking lunar and planetary orbits through both the solar ecliptic and 17 constellations. The same trove yielded the awe-striking collection known as the Astronomical Diaries, currently held in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, originating from near modern-day Baghdad. The oldest of which dates to 652 B.C. The latest, 61 B.C.

Hermann Hunger and David Pingree, the foremost historians on their excavation, minced no words on their value to to modern science. 

“That someone in the middle of the eighth century BC conceived of such a scientific program and obtained support for it is truly astonishing; that it was designed so well is incredible; and that it was faithfully carried out for 700 years is miraculous,” they wrote.  

In his 2021 book, “A Scheme of Heaven,” data scientist Alexander Boxer cites the two historians and observes that the “enormity of this achievement” lay in the diaries’ preservation of a snapshot of celestial knowledge of the age which — paired with accounts of weather patterns, river water tables, grain prices and even political news — allow us to pinpoint historical events from thousands of years ago, in time-windows as narrow as just a day or two.

“Rivaled only by the extraordinary astronomical records from ancient China, the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries are one of, if not the longest continuous research program ever undertaken,” writes Boxer. 

The cuneiform tablets studied by the UCL team extend this interdisciplinary legacy of the sciences and humanities beautifully by allowing us to read not only the celestially relevant data of geomagnetic history, but by reaffirming the importance of early cultural studies. One fragment, for instance, is dedicated by Nebuchadnezzar II to a temple in Larsa. The site was devoted to carrying out astrological divination traditions, and it’s where we get our earliest clue about the authorship of the Astronomical Diaries. 

Charmingly, that clue appears in the court testimony of a temple official who gets scolded for sounding a false-alarm about an eclipse, embarrassing the temple scholars in front of the whole city.

These Neo-Assyrian and Old Babylonian astrologers gave us more than antics, though. In further records at Nineveh, they would ultimately help researchers at the University of Tsukuba [Japan] — some 2,700 years later — track what were likely massive solar magnetic storms in the area, enabled by geomagnetic disruptions that may be yet linked to the LIAA.

In their dutifully recorded daily observations, one astrologer records a “red cloud” while another tablet-writer observes that “red covers the sky” in Babylon.

“These were probably manifestations of what we call today stable auroral red arcs, consisting of light emitted by electrons in atmospheric oxygen atoms after being excited by intense magnetic fields,” the authors said. “These findings allow us to recreate the history of solar activity a century earlier than previously available records…This research can assist in our ability to predict future solar magnetic storms, which may damage satellites and other spacecraft.”

Hodge ends with an observation, from her December 25, 2023 commentary,

When universities short sell the arts and humanities, we humanities students might lose our poetry, but we can write more. The science folk, on the other hand, might cost themselves another 75 years of research and $70 billion in grants trying to re-invent the Babylonian wheel because the destruction of its historical blueprint was “an arts problem.”

If you have time, do read Hodge’s December 25, 2023 commentary.

Urania Day (celebrating women in the arts and sciences) on March 16, 2021

I sometimes get notices from unexpected sources for science and technology events. On Tuesday, March 9, 2021, I received a notice from an agency about Urania Day (March 16, 2021) celebrating women in the arts and sciences during (US) Women’s History Month. What made the notice unusual is that the agency was representing Ophira and Tali Edut of AstroStyle, an astrology website.

Astrologers like Galileo, Kepler, Tycho and others

I realize that for a lot people, astrology is a pseudoscience but what is often missed, according to some observers, is that astrology has provided the basis for current astronomy and physics.

Dr . Rebekah Higgott who was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich from 2008 – 2013 wrote a thoughtful January 28, 2011 post about astrology and science on Martin Robbins’ Guardian science blog,

Like Martin, I heard about the astrologers’ petition to the BBC and blogged about it, together with another astrology-related story that recently hit the headlines. Unlike him, I was critical of the knee-jerk response of many scientists, science writers and fans of science. I also had some quibbles about his post, so I’d like to start by thanking him for hosting this – and, before you leap to the comments section, making it clear that I do not believe in astrology. However, I do believe that a little knowledge and understanding can help the cause of science communication far more than ridicule.

As is well known to readers of The Lay Scientist, the Astrological Association, prompted by remarks made by Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, has asked for “fair and balanced representation” (note, not “equal representation”). This has resulted in widespread derision from those who can see nothing wrong with stating that “astrology is rubbish” and “nonsense”. Most, however, have failed to understand exactly what has annoyed these astrologers, or to take the time to find out what astrology actually is.

The Astrological Association is not complaining about a statement such as this. Rather, they consider it unfair that they are represented as having no knowledge of the astronomy and celestial mechanics that Cox and O’Briain are paid to explain on TV. They are annoyed that astrology is considered to consist solely of those who read and write newspaper horoscopes. Serious astrologers often have an excellent understanding of, and respect for, astronomy. They are, in fact, a not insignificant audience for astronomy programmes, lectures and books.

Which brings me to the history: a little historical understanding should make astronomers and science communicators realise that practising astrologers are likely to have good knowledge of planetary motions. Up until the late 17th century, astrology and astronomy were deeply interconnected. [emphasis mine] …

Do read the rest of Higgott’s post for the mentions of Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, and more.

Astrology lays the foundation for data science?

Alexander Boxer’s 2020 book “A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data” might seem a bit fanciful. Interestingly, it was discussed by Jonathan Keats in a January 15, 2020 book review for the New Scientist and a January 17, 2020 book review by Steven Vanden Broeck for Science Magazine (Science  17 Jan 2020: Vol. 367, Issue 6475, pp. 255 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz9644). Both of these reviews are behind paywalls. (There is an open access summary of Vanden Broeck’s review mentioned later in this subsection.)

Here’s more about the book from publisher W. W. Norton’s webpage for A Scheme of Heaven,

An illuminating look at the surprising history and science of astrology, civilization’s first system of algorithms, from Babylon to the present day.

Humans are pattern-matching creatures, and astrology is the universe’s grandest pattern-matching game. In this refreshing work of history and analysis, data scientist Alexander Boxer examines classical texts on astrology to expose its underlying scientific and mathematical framework. Astrology, he argues, was the ancient world’s most ambitious applied mathematics problem, a monumental data-analysis enterprise sustained by some of history’s most brilliant minds, from Ptolemy to al-Kindi to Kepler.

Thousands of years ago, astrologers became the first to stumble upon the powerful storytelling possibilities inherent in numerical data. To correlate the configurations of the cosmos with our day-to-day lives, astrologers relied upon a “scheme of heaven,” or horoscope, showing the precise configuration of the planets at a particular instant in time as viewed from a particular place on Earth. Although recognized as pseudoscience today, horoscopes were once considered a cutting-edge scientific tool. Boxer teaches us how to read these esoteric charts—and appreciate the complex astronomical calculations needed to generate them—by diagramming how the heavens appeared at important moments in astrology’s history, from the assassination of Julius Caesar as viewed from Rome to the Apollo 11 lunar landing as seen from the surface of the Moon. He then puts these horoscopes to the test using modern data sets and statistical science, arguing that today’s data scientists do work similar to astrologers of yore. By looking back at the algorithms of ancient astrology, he suggests, we can better recognize the patterns that are timeless characteristics of our own pattern-matching tendencies.

At once critical, rigorous, and far ranging, A Scheme of Heaven recontextualizes astrology as a vast, technological project—spanning continents and centuries—that foreshadowed our data-driven world today.

I had problems finding Boxer’s credentials, he’s described as a physicist and/or data scientist. Most unusually he does not fully tout his credentials on his eponymous website or anywhere, it seems. Based on a reference to an Alex Boxer in a January 26, 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) news release, he has a PhD in physics from MIT (this excerpt is from the second paragraph from the bottom),

… A newly installed microwave interferometer array, developed by MIT graduate student Alex Boxer PhD ‘09 [emphasis mine], was used to make the precision measurements of the plasma concentrations that were used to observe the turbulent pinch.

Getting to the open access summary, Science magazine published this brief of Steven Vanden Broecke’s book review in a January 14, 2020 highlight,

Alexander Boxer, a professional data scientist, knows a thing or two about distilling patterns from big data. Surrounded by constant, endless streams of information, humans are pattern-matching animals, and astrology, he claims, “is the universe’s grandest pattern-matching game.”

The book also exposes readers to the rigor of statistical analysis. Here, Boxer applies his knowledge of statistics to some of the most enduring and fascinating patterns that astrology educed from its constant comparisons between heavenly and terrestrial events. This combination of topics is usually the preserve of critics, who like to mobilize analyses of astrology’s conceptual apparatus, history, and statistical soundness to demonstrate the art’s vacuity. …

A Scheme of Heaven—like all good history writing—turns its subject into a mirror. (In the words of the Roman poet Horatius, “the story is told about you.”) Statistics, Boxer shows, not only debunk astrology’s claims, they confirm that some of our most private behavior happens in step with cosmic rhythms today. History not only documents a distant past, it shows how intimately some of our most prestigious scientific traditions really are—as Johannes Kepler argued—the children of this foolish daughter. And like astrology, the patterns that data science reveals turn out to hinge on far more interpretation than we might like. Boxer points out, for example, how the contemporary combination of big data with machine-learning algorithms is rapidly creating a rift between empirical forecasting models and causal understanding—exactly the kind of rift that has often been invoked to criticize astrology.

And now:

Purple hair, Caroline Herschel, and Urania Day

March 16 was chosen as Urania Day to honour Caroline Herschel, an astronomer with an extraordinary history as is made clear in the Urania Day notice,

Urania Day, March 16, to celebrate girls and women in arts and science

during Women’s History Month

Named for the Greek Muse of astronomy, Urania Day falls on the birthday
of groundbreaking astronomer Caroline Herschel, who co-discovered Uranus

Supporters are encouraged to dye their hair purple like the ‘violet-haired’ Muses
to champion the visibility of women in the arts and sciences

#UraniaDay #MarchMuse @astrotwins

NEW YORK – March 5, 2021 – Ophira and Tali Edut, twin founders of astrology multimedia brand AstroStyle, along with astrologer Matthew Swann, have established a new galaxywide holiday: Urania Day. Occurring annually on March 16, birthday of astronomy pioneer Caroline Herschel, and named for the Muse of astronomy, Urania Day’s purpose is to encourage girls and women to literally reach for the stars through science, math and technology.

Urania, the Muse of astronomy in Greek Mythology“As female ‘astropreneurs’ — successful business owners in a creative field — ourselves, my sister Tali and I have been on a mission to empower girls and women since we established AstroStyle in the early 2000s,” explained Ophira, whose website garners more than 10 million pageviews each month. “With Urania Day, we seek to honor the lesser-known, under-credited and virtually forgotten female mavericks of the arts and sciences — starting with Caroline Herschel — and use their stories to inspire today’s young people.”

The Urania Day founders invite any supporters of their mission to be a #MarchMuse and post an image of themselves with purple hair (extensions, wigs and creative dye welcome!) or to share a purple-tinted selfie with the hashtags #UraniaDay and #MarchMuse.

Caroline Herschel, born March 16, 1750, was the younger sister of Sir William Herschel. They both left careers in music to indulge their mutual passion for astronomy and telescope-making. It was Caroline who possessed the craftsmanship to grind and polish their telescope mirrors by hand, and facilitated her brother’s accidental discovery of the planet Uranus on March 13, 1781 using a homemade 6.2-inch reflecting telescope. Beyond this historic accomplishment, Caroline was the first woman to discover a comet, discovering eight comets and three nebulae over the course of her career. She was also the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist, to hold to government position in England, to publish findings in the scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835, along with Mary Somerville). Caroline also created catalogs of astronomical discoveries that are still in use today. [emphasis mine]

“Uranus the planet was named for Uranus the ancient god of the heavens,” explained Tali. “He was the great-grandfather of Urania and her sisters, the Nine Muses, who were — are — the patron goddesses of the arts and sciences. It’s each Muse’s job to inspire humanity in her area of expertise.”

Visitors to UraniaDay.com are invited to Choose the Muse they most closely relate to:  Urania (astronomy), Clio (history and the guitar), Melpomene (tragedy and rhetoric), Thalia (comedy, geometry, architecture and agriculture), Terpsichore (dance and education), Calliope (epic poetry, inspired The Iliad and The Odyssey), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (grammar, geometry, hymns and mimic art), or Euterpe (lyric poetry).

“Artists are known to ‘invoke the Muse’ when they sit down to write or paint,” she added. “We all invoke the Muse regularly when we use words derived from their name, like ‘music,’ ‘musings’ and ‘amusement.'”

The AstroTwins have also restyled Caroline Herschel’s Urania’s Mirror constellation deck as an all-ages coloring book, which can be downloaded as a free PDF on the Urania Day website.

About The AstroTwins

Identical twin sisters Ophira and Tali Edut, known as the AstroTwins, are professional astrologers who reach millions worldwide. Through their website Astrostyle, and as the official astrologers for ELLE magazine, they bring the stars down to Earth with their lifestyle- and coaching-based approach to horoscopes. They’ve created astrology sections for multiple media properties, including Refinery29, Parade and Lifetime TV. Bestselling authors, they have written a collection of books, including AstroStyle, Love Zodiac and Momstrology (their #1 Amazon bestselling parenting guide), and their own brand imprint annual horoscope guides.

The AstroTwins have been featured on Good Morning America and Today, and in The New York Times Sunday Styles, People and Vogue. They have collaborated with major brands including Coach, Zappos and Nordstrom, and cocreated the wildly successful “Signs of Love” campaign with Revlon and Refinery29. The sisters have read charts for celebrities including Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Karlie Kloss, Emma Roberts and Sting. They are regular guests on SiriusXM, and have appeared on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New Jersey, doing on-air readings for the cast. Follow them at @astrotwins and on www.astrostyle.com

There’s more about Caroline Herschel in her Wikipedia entry. As for that bit about polishing the mirrors for the telescopes that feat sometimes had to be accomplished with over 24 hours of continuous work. (If memory serves, some of those mirrors took over 48 hours work without a break.) Do read Richard Holmes’ 2008 book, “The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science,” which details the work involved in one of its chapters.

Happy Urania Day!