The planet Mercury is small, not much larger than our moon, but dense, mostly a molten iron core with hardly any crust or atmosphere. It flies fast, orbiting the sun once every 87.97 earth days, and spins slowly, rotating only 1.5 times every trip around. During those long nights and days, temperatures drop to minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit and rise to 800 degrees. The poles, surprisingly, contain deposits of ice, but the rest of Mercury’s surface is rough ground, a record of the early years of the solar system, when the planet was pummeled by asteroids and meteors.
All the craters are named for artists. Shakespeare, John Lennon and Walt Disney are there. Alvin Ailey is too, as are Bach, Basho, the Brontës, Hemingway, Faulkner, Kahlil Gibran, Michelangelo and 361 others, all cataloged in “The Gazetteer and Atlas of Astronomy.” The planet is a hot, fast, magnetic monument to earthly imagination.
For about three weeks three times a year, Mercury appears to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.
The belief that the movements of celestial bodies govern our lives is more popular in the United States than it has been in two decades, according to a recent National Science Foundation report. In a 2012 survey, a third of Americans viewed astrology as “sort of scientific” and another 10 percent as “very scientific.” Belief is most prevalent among 18-to-24-year-olds but has markedly increased among 35-to-44-year-olds in recent years. To put this in perspective: More Americans believe in astrology, or “sort of” believe in astrology, than believe that climate change is influenced by the burning of fossil fuels.
The astrological belief that Mercury retrograde leads to confusion and breakdown is inherited from the time before we understood that Earth is not the center of the cosmos. From our perspective, Mercury appears to move quickly and erratically, so the ancients called it a messenger and a trickster. It took three millenniums to figure out that this was an illusion. Before that, Ptolemy constructed elaborate models in which the other planets spun around us like insane tops, and the models stayed with us long after the observations stopped matching the math. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory explained retrograde motion much more elegantly, but he kept it unpublished nearly until his death. Mercury told its story, anyway: To understand the illusion of its movement means to realize that we are not at the center of things, that there is a reality beyond the one we see. (For astrology bloggers, this is less a problem than further evidence of the planet’s wiliness — as if its dangerous power is drawn less from what the planet actually does or is and more from the story of our confused efforts to understand it.)
Of the 372 craters on Mercury, only 22 are named for women. One of them is Madeleine L’Engle. When I was a child, I read her book “A Wrinkle in Time” so much that I lived almost as if it were true. I grew up in rural Indiana, but I pretended I was that book’s protagonist: a 13-year-old math nerd named Meg Murry, from Connecticut, whose astrophysicist father had disappeared from Earth while working out the science of “tesseracts” (basically wormholes), whose mother was a biologist and who was visited by witchy women — Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which — prone to explaining quantum mechanics and general relativity to children. With the help of these visitors, Meg makes an intergalactic trip to rescue her father and fight “IT,” a malevolent consciousness that controls human minds so that everyone in its power speaks the same, thinks the same, dresses the same, does the same dull jobs.
It’s not that I believed I lived in L’Engle’s universe, exactly. But I lived as if I did. There was something about this story that married a love of quantum physics and astrophysical theory to a witchy sense of cosmic magic; it sent me not away from science, but toward it, suggesting that my relentless research, in my parents’ library and in the woods and streams of our farm, might matter, even though I was a girl.
This is not to say that astrological belief is childish — L’Engle’s book is not — but that critiques of astrological thinking that assume it is opposed to science tend to ignore the “sort of” and “as if”: the radical utility of narratives that provide a sense of connection to a cosmic drama. But in the case of Mercury retrograde, it’s not clear how “magical” the thinking is. What’s striking about the online commiserating during the retrograde period — the labeling of thousands of different experiences as one thing — is how un-Mercury it is; how it narrows language and experience. Blog posts and tweets about Mercury retrograde fantasize about a kind of technological anarchy so extreme that we’d have an excuse to hide from the devices that are supposed to connect us, but they speak the suffocating and reductive language of branding. Perhaps the problem is that we don’t let this particular planet influence us enough. Mercury, icon of creativity, has much more to say to us — much more, I think, to mean.
The story of Mercury is a cautionary tale too, about thinking there is a connection between how things work on Earth and how they work in the heavens. Every time Mercury orbits the sun, it ends up a bit ahead of where it began, so that the planet traces in space not a steady ellipsis but a pattern of flower petals. Called precession, some of this jumping ahead is explainable by Newton’s laws. But some isn’t. The difference between where Mercury should end up, according to the law of gravity that works on Earth, and where it actually ends up, is minuscule — 43 arc seconds per century — but it was enough to puzzle astronomers for years, even leading to speculation about a phantom planet, Vulcan, that might influence Mercury’s orbit.
What it took, in the end, to explain Mercury’s precession was Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity; Mercury flies close enough to the sun that it travels through a part of space-time so bent by the sun’s mass that the planet is dragged a bit farther along each time. The fact that things work so differently in space than they do on Earth, not to mention at the quantum level, has physicists conjuring ideas even stranger than any malevolent planet — string theory, multiple universes — to connect it all together again.
To believe in Mercury’s powers is to express a fear that masks a very legitimate desire: to drop our iPhones in the toilet, to not respond to email, to stop working so hard at constant communication. And the planet tells more stories than that. If it tells a story about our connection to the stars, it also tells one about how easy it is to misstate that connection. If it tells a story of miscommunication, it also tells one about how good we are, as humans, at striving to know beyond what we can see. Its reverse motion is an illusion, like all that we see when we imagine ourselves central in the world, a reminder of how much work empathy for the position of others takes, and how tied that is to the imaginative labor both of science and art. - with Thanks to The New York Times Magazine January 9, 2015