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Birth horoscope of the cosmos according to Hellenistic astrology, showing a linear conjunction of the seven
‘planets’ spanning across seven constellations of the zodiac. Courtesy Meredith Garstin.



Joining the Dots Part Two: The Dating Scene in the Sky
May 08, 2009

Ancient astronomers from the Hellenistic world to China believed that the cosmos is ravaged by deluges and fires whenever the five naked-eye planets, the moon and the sun ‘meet’ in a linear conjunction.

Modern astronomers baulk at this notion of a ‘Great Year’ for essentially two reasons. The first objection, that planetary conjunctions cannot produce any noticeable effects on earth, is challenged when the role of the solar wind and planetary magnetotails is taken on board, as previously discussed in part one. What about the second objection – a chronological discrepancy between traditional dates given for such conjunctions and the modern findings of retro-calculation?

For ancient chroniclers working within the framework of a ‘Great Year’ theory, the most recent turning-point in this cycle functioned as an ‘era base’ for the present historical age. Though most ancient estimates for the present era base are now lost in time, at least one has survived.

In the traditional chronology of Hindūism, the present age is the Kaliyuga, the beginning of which was dated by the famed Indian astronomer, Āryabhaṭa (476-550 CE), to the 17th/18th. February 3102 BCE, when all seven traditional planets were in conjunction in 0º Aries. Intriguingly, this date roughly agrees with two comparable calendar bases in Latin America.

The British Mayanist, Sir Eric Thompson (1898-1975), deduced that the ‘Long Count’ of Mayan astronomy commenced on 11th/12th. August 3114 or 3113 BCE. In 1644, the Spanish historian, Fernando de Montesinos, outlined a Peruvian account of history involving nine eras governed by rulers called ‘Pachacuti’, that must have had its beginning date in 3061 BCE. Though these calendar bases were not demonstrably associated with a linear conjunction of planets, they were almost certainly linked to astronomical movements and are close enough to Āryabhaṭa's estimate to suggest an underlying truth of some sort.

Time and again, modern commentators have pointed out that Āryabhaṭa’s date for the most recent ‘great conjunction’ does not correspond to astronomical reality, as “a mass conjunction did not take place” at that time. Armed with the evidence of retro-calculations, nowadays performed with software programmes, Bartel van der Waerden, Rupert Gleadow, Anthony Aveni, David Pankenier, Bruce Masse and the pair of David Kelley and Eugene Milone all dismissed the traditional date on this ground, suspecting that “the conjunction of 3102 B. C. was not observed, but calculated” – as if the fact of ‘calculation’ is a sufficient explanation for the perceived error – and proposing various alternative dates on which similar mass conjunctions would have occurred.

Despite the best intentions of these archaeoastronomers, none of their solutions are entirely satisfactory. On one hand, it is not clear whether their retro-calculating efforts concentrated exclusively on apparent linear conjunctions, as seems to be the case, or whether actual alignments, including the earth itself, were also considered. On the other hand, the proposed solutions typically do not involve all the traditional seven planets or present them only in a loose grouping, rather than the single, straight line stipulated by the ancient theoreticians of the ‘Great Year’.

To a truly open and curious mind, the refutation of Āryabhaṭa’s date for the latest ‘Great New Year’ on chronological grounds carries very limited weight, for the simple reason that the orbits of the planets during the 3rd millennium BCE and earlier are not known with certainty. Retro-calculations, for all their mathematical genius, provide not a smidgen of proof without a control set of observational data.

The earliest extant records of orbital measurements of the planets date from Hellenistic Mesopotamia, while ephemerides recording the positions and phases of the sun and the moon reach back a few more centuries. For the 2nd millennium BCE, the evidence for planetary orbits boils down to a handful of possible descriptions of eclipses, the interpretation of which is fraught with difficulties of a philological and an astronomical kind. Before that, all evidence for detailed astronomical observations evaporates entirely.

Without any data checks, the mathematical extrapolation of current orbits to the distant past is a futile exercise, not only because it rests on the logical fallacy that the present is the key to the past, but also because Newton’s law of gravity applied to the solar system predicts chaos in the term of a few million years at most. Indeed, the limited set of information conveyed by ancient scientists includes some very credible indications that planetary orbits did shift within the span of human history. For example, the Roman intellectual, Varro († 27 BCE), is on record with the claim that Venus “changed its color, size, form, course, which never happened before nor since”. Needless to say, even the slightest adjustment in Venus’ orbit would nullify any retro-calculations for the relevant period.

To allow that orbital changes, however so subtle, have occurred in the recent past is not necessarily to endorse traditional dates for the time of ‘creation’ or the cosmic New Year. For that, one would need to know how Āryabhaṭa arrived at his date. The nub is the obstacle presented by the prevailing intransigent attitude towards the role of electromagnetic forces in the orbital dynamics governing the solar system.

An electromagnetic theory of the great conjunction cannot only shed light on the traditional link with a world-devouring fire, but actually predicts subtle shifts in planetary orbits as well. In his proposed model of Electrically Modified Newtonian Dynamics (EMOND), electrical theorist Wallace Thornhill has recently argued that, when an electric charge exchange transpires between adjacent planets, orbital adjustment and stabilisation are the inevitable consequences: “If the mass of an inner planet is reduced by charge exchange with the next outer planet, … the orbital radius of the inner planet must decrease proportionally to conserve energy. Similarly, the outer planet must gain mass and its orbit expands to conserve energy.”

An electromagnetic perspective on the workings of the solar system expects orbital adjustments at times of linear conjunction, when plasma tails interact with each other. If that may be granted, the use of retro-calculations to verify traditional dates for the most recent turning of the Great Year is invalidated and a greater reliance can be placed on traditional dates, provided that these did not themselves root in more ancient equivalents of retro-calculation.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van der Sluijs:The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon



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