Whether you believe in the prognosticating powers of astrology or not, David Berlinski’s fascinating look at the history of this ancient art and those who perfected it will keep you glued to its pages. The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky examines the art of prediction from pre-Christian times right up until the recent trend of newspaper astrology columns, chronicling the rise in popularity and respect of the men, and women, who watched the stars and recorded their movements for purposes of predicting a person’s fate.
Berlinski, author of the bestselling A Tour of the Calculus and The Advent of the Algorithm, has a Ph.D. from Princeton and knows his stuff, especially the history of scientific discoveries that often shaped the art of astrology -- and not ultimately for the better. From the ancient star-mappers of Babylonia and Sumeria, through the Greek and Roman empires, and the Christian era and Middle Ages up to modern day, the author charts the many transitions and changes astrological techniques went through as the men assigned to predict the fates of kings, warriors, politicians and princes evolved alongside growing discoveries in physics, mathematics, astronomy and geometry. Often, religious trends changed astrology, such as the Christian and Catholic pressures to suppress the blasphemous art which went against the idea that only God could know the future and that the fate of the world was not pre-mapped in the stars and planets.
We meet men whose names are not recognizable to most, like Babylonian astrologer Berossos and Rome’s Domitian and Ascletario, and 19th-century Muslim astrologer extraordinaire Abu Mashar Al-Balkhi Jafar ibn Muhammed – all men who shaped the course of astrological predictions and perfected techniques based upon the limited science of their times. These men, among many others mentioned in detail, led the way for later scientific discoveries by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, all of whom were influenced by astrology, even if they did not wholly embrace it.
The book points out our fascination with the night sky and its effects on human life and behavior, a fascination that has been present since the dawn of humanity. But what is most interesting is the ever-evolving longing of humanity to predict its own fate even when that fate is distressing, and the attempts by astrologers to both satisfy that longing and keep their own heads. I loved the many stories of astrologers hired by kings to predict rosy futures, only to risk losing their lives when the charts they cast revealed that everything wasn’t coming up roses! Can you say “beheaded"?
Most intriguing is the story of the negative effects Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking discovery of gravity had on the central concepts of astrology, nearly destroying astrology completely by proving its basic concepts ridiculously unscientific. Yet the art form persisted and exists to this day, albeit in a much different structure than what Newton was used to debunking. The astrology of yesterday has been forced to grow, change, die and be reborn just as so many other sciences have as new discoveries came into the picture, discoveries that often nullified everything humans believed in before them. Just think “flat earth.”
This book will thrill anyone interested in astrology and will engage anyone who has only a passing interest, because it is really about the progress of scientific thought and theory and the melding of that thought with the clearly human desire to know our future and try to reshape destiny. The men who cast the charts may not have always been accurate, and many times they were, but they were always passionate in their conviction that as above, so below.