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Image: Mercury from Messenger spacecraft
NASA/JHU Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution
Stupid Mercury! Look at it there, all smug and mugging for Messenger's Wide Angle Camera (WAC), ready to retrograde and totally mess up your life.
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 10/3/2008 8:56:35 AM ET 2008-10-03T12:56:35

Internet Astrology doyenne Susan Miller isn’t surprised the Hubble repair mission scheduled for early this month had to be postponed due to yet another malfunction on the space telescope.

Likewise, the best-selling author and talent behind AstrologyZone.com is unfazed to hear that due to an electrical malfunction, CERN shut down the Large Hadron Collider just nine days after it started. As for that hole in the Adobe software that allowed Amazon users to download and copy movies for free … well something like that was bound to happen.

C’mon, people! What did you expect? Mercury is in retrograde!

“I wish they’d called me first,” Miller says, laughing as Technotica lists those three major malfunctions in a recent telephone interview.

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Even the most casual horoscope reader knows that according to Western astrological tenets, when the planet closest to the sun appears to reverse orbit, things go kaflooie — especially technology and communication, which Mercury “rules.” Computers crash, e-mails get lost, TVs go on the fritz, so they say. Those in the know expect to lose cell phone signals, or their phone altogether.

All of which is complete unadulterated hogwash, according to scientist, educator and author Dr. Phil Plait — albeit in not so many old timey adjectives. 

“If the Hubble breaks, it has nothing to do with planetary rotation – the thing has a zillion very sensitive parts,” Dr. Plait says. He should know. He worked on Hubble for 10 years. “Mecury Messenger ( NASA’s space probe ) passes Mercury next week (while the planet is still in retrograde),” Dr. Plait says. “What’s going to happen then?”

Sarcasm noted.

Ten mysteries of the mind“The only people affected by the planets are astronomers … like me,” Dr. Plait said via telephone interview. “I go outside and look at Jupiter through a telescope and it’s cold, then I might get frostbite. There. The stars have affected my life.”

Dr. Plait is also the creator of the Bad Astronomy Web site and was recently named president of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

“Yes, the Amazing Randi,” Plait states in his online bio, where he also describes himself as “a skeptic, and fights misuses of science as well as praising the wonder of real science.” As such, he’s spent years studying a multitude of the world’s astrological practices and has yet to find any kind of proof, statistical or otherwise.

So, yeah. When it comes to Mercury, the only thing Susan Miller and Dr. Plait would probably agree on is that it’s a planet. And it moves. 

This is hypothesis I have no desire to test. Like most people, when it comes to science and what many call superstition, I have a great big fat disconnect.

I’m a huge fan of empirical data. I make no major purchase without first consulting Consumer Reports (where I proudly worked for 10 years). I scoff at my sister’s insistence that her “paranormal experiences” as a dazed and confused teenager were “real” rather than the result of various sundry chemical interactions.

And I’m positively flabbergasted that one of my vice presidential candidates believes dinosaurs and humans roamed the Earth together a mere 6,000 years ago.

I’m also one of Susan Miller’s six million unique readers who help crash AstrologyZone.com the first day of every month when the new horoscopes post. Late last month, I was keenly aware that, just as it does three or four times a year, Mercury was about to retrograde.

(September 24 — October 15, though as Miller always points out, a Mercury retrograde is especially devilish before and after it actually begins.)

So when a confluence of crap commenced raining on my head — nothing too horrible, just some swollen annoyances most of us associate with day-to-day living — I clung to my 8-page heavily highlighted September AstrologyZone printout and felt an eency bit better that things were obviously out of my control.

Yeah, that’s some serious cognitive dissonance. So sue me. I’m not alone.

Moonwalking Mercury is a comforting concept to latch on to when all the mechanized annoyances of the 21st century are weighing you down. I say “Mercury in retrograde” in my pronounced indoor voice, and at least one co-worker will immediately respond in a tone of relief, stating something along the lines of, “Oh! That’s why the system went down!”

If I’m commiserating with one of my girlfriends on the phone, we won’t get five minutes into our delineation of woes without one of us positing the unavoidable question, “Is Mercury in retrograde?” That three-word curse is a conversational code in my circle of friends, a shared experience or mythology that bonds us, evolution style.

Of course, as Miller regularly reminds her readers, Mercury in retrograde isn’t necessarily a negative. “People always latch on to the negative,” Miller says. Sure you may get a bad haircut or leave your iPhone on the bus, but as she advises her readers, “to move forward it is sometimes necessary to backtrack and reconfigure our paths in life.”

When Mercury retrogrades, “it forces us to slow down and fix what's broken, and in so doing, rethink things. It also gives us time to get to projects we have put on the back-burner.”

Stuff like this is a big reason I adore Miller, to the exclusion to the countless other Internet astrologers. It may very well be the complete load of hooey that Dr. Plait contends and I don’t care.

Miller no doubt excels in her field because her lengthy, well written forecasts ring with a compassion even cynical sarcastic jerks like me long for in the real world.

In this month’s horoscope, Miller advises me (and every other Taurus on the planet) that while Mercury continues to retrograde, “If you have a habit you'd like to delete, whether it be that you nibble on cookies in bed at night before sleep, or something more serious and self-destructive, you can get the help you need at mid-month to reach your goal.”

Will this tech end the world?(Goodbye 8 a.m. Dunkin’ Donuts and 11 p.m. “L&O: Criminal Intent” reruns! Hello 5:15 a.m. alarm! Yeah, that’ll happen.)

Also, I must admit that on occasion she’s been delightfully accurate … at least for this Taurus. Yeah, I know the cold reading con artist techniques used by those TV types who claim to speak to the dead: “I’m seeing an 'M' … did  anybody in the audience lose someone whose name contains an ‘M’?” And I don't need to hear the thing about, "even a broken clock blah blah blah ..."

Here's the thing. Beyond Miller’s lovely forecasts and occasional dead on predictions, I find it comforting to pretend there’s some kind of order in the universe — that someone or something is in control. But that natural human instinct is a big reason why we really need people such as Dr. Plait.

“If you understand that (astrology) is just a bit of silliness and you’re not Nancy Regan planning her husband’s events around astrology, that’s OK,” Dr. Plait says. “It becomes a problem when people are really basing their lives on it, because it really is nonsense. Then you’re promoting a belief in something that is wrong, and taking away the ability to think critically – which we really need right now.”

Agreed — considering some in potential power recall photos featuring human footprints inside dino tracks. 

Now excuse me, I have to go back and triple check this story for mistakes. As Miller reminds in my October forecast, “Mercury will be retrograde in your workaday sector until October 15. Make a strong effort to counter possibilities for errors.”

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