The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction

David Berlinski, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-15-100527-7
Spanning the development of astrology from Sumerian origins to Nazi court astrologers, Berlinski's ruminative but shallow history seeks to rescue it from what he sees as the misconceived derision of modern science. The author of A Tour of the Calculus remains coyly agnostic about astrology's validity. He calls it a""finely geared tool for the resolution of practical problems"" and cites many successful predictions and a statistical study supposedly verifying the""Mars effect"" on athletic talent, but when faced with the incoherent, metaphorical techniques by which astrologers interpret their charts, he can only shrug that since smart people used to listen to astrologers, there must be something to it. If not rational, Berlinski argues that astrology is at least""rationalistic,"" in that""the peculiar nature of astrological thought has returned in all the sciences, in disguised form."" Unfortunately, this provocative point is made through facile comparisons--medieval notions of heavenly""influences"" anticipate Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism and sociobiology, for example, while 15th-century medical astrological charts are""the forerunner of such diagnostic devices as CAT scans""--that illuminate neither ancient nor modern thought. Physicists will object to Berlinski's contention that they account for""action at a distance"" no better than astrologers do, while philosophers will blanch at his superficial take on the conundrums of causality and determinism. No more edifying are the self-consciously literary vignettes (the dying Copernicus""took his breath in long, slow, wet, ragged gasps, a bubble of pale phlegm forming on his lips"") with which Berlinski""humanizes"" this intellectual history. Readers looking for real intellectual meat behind the author's ostentatious erudition and metaphysical pseudo-profundities will go hungry.
Reviewed on: 11/01/2003
Release date: 11/01/2003
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