Amazing dates

2012 is shaping up to be a year with plenty of notable dates. If you are following the Gregorian Calendar, today is a leap day. This means two things; firstly, that February really doesn’t know when to leave the party gracefully. (“It’s a year that’s divisible by four! Why don’t I just stay over? No, no, I’m fine with no bed and no overnight gear – I can sleep on your sofa. Hey, have you got any pizza? I’m starving.”) And 2) that, according to tradition, this the day of the year when women are allowed to propose to men. I looked into this one and apparently we Irish could be blamed for this particular bit of tradition.

St Brigid was exasperated by the fact that only men were allowed to propose and generally did so with the complete lack of punctuality the Irish are famed for. She struck a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men – and not just the other way around – on this one day every 4 years. (I had never heard this one – my entire familiarity with our most revered female figure was the story of her miraculously expanding cloak which allowed her to finagle a few choice acres out of a stingy king. Would that the same trick worked on real estate agents in Sydney.)

And turning down such a proposal was considered to be very poor form. In some places, a man was expected to pay a penalty, such as a gown or money, if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on Leap Day. Which sounds like a good way to wangle a new dress or a few books out of  someone if you are very, very confident they will say no.

Anyway, the “once in a few years” event of 2012 that I am most keyed about is not an attempt to extort more books from my poor beleaguered partner. Come November I’m hoping to schlep up to Cairns and catch the total solar eclipse.   I’ve had a yen to see an eclipse since I read an Enid Blyton book where the plucky kids outwitted their tropical captors by knowing when a solar eclipse would occur, and proceeded to pretend to the stunned locals that they had caused it and wouldn’t reverse the spell unless they were given lashings and lashings of ginger beer. I have wanted to see an eclipse for as long as Timmy the dog has wanted to bite prissy Julian firmly on the arse and tell Anne to stop cleaning his bowl and put some damned food in it. Not even Stephenie Meyer’s using the word as a title will put me off.

If you can’t make the solar eclipse, you can always comfort yourself with the transit of Venus in June (and Australian astonomer Nick Lomb‘s excellent book about it). Or you could make the most of the end of this amazing date and go pick yourself up something nice – today is Boomerang Books’ Discount Day!

Whatever you do this year to mark amazing occasions, you are bound to do better than Guillaume Le Gentil, whose suffering in the name of astronomy and science was so hilariously summed up in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setback left him still at sea on the day of the transit-just about the worst place to be, since steady measurements are impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4th, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: 3 hours, 14 minutes, 7 seconds.

Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route, he contracted dysentery and was laid up for almost a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.

Still crabby after all these years – Astrology, astronomy and you

If you bought an astrology book for the new year, I hope you kept the receipt. You may not be the sign you think you are.

According to researchers at the Minnesota Planetarium Society the star signs have all been moved. Astrology claims to go back 3,000 years to when Babylonian astronomers first drafted the original Zodiac of constellations along the path of the sun and dividing it 12 sections. Your star sign is based on the position of the sun on their Zodiac on the day that you were born.

But a lot can happen in 3,000 years and the moon’s gravity has shifted the Earth by about a month, meaning that the horoscope we read this morning may not be for us. In fact, you may be a whole new sign – Ophiuchus, who are born between November 29 and December 17, and cruely ignored by the Babylonians because they wanted 12 signs per year. How fast do you reckon they can get a book out on that one?

I’m really quite happy about this. I was born early and missed being a sunny bouncy confident Leo. Instead I got landed with Cancer, the clingy kill joy of the zodiac.

In the bin with you, I have a new star sign now!

Yes, we get some nice stuff. Apparently we are protective. The word “nurturing” has been mentioned. It might appear that other stars get all good stuff – confidence (Leo), athleticism (Sagittarius), creativity (Aquarius), the sex appeal (Scorpio). It might appear that Taureans and Arians have cornered the market on determination, so we just get to be clingy. It might appear – say, to moody broody types like Cancers – that the name of our sign is either terminal or venereal.  But apparently, despite a tendency to cynicism and pessimism, Cancer the Crab is just great at nurturing.

We Cancers may be stroppy, snappy, crabby, moody crabs but at least we make good chicken soup for the soul. Or crab and sweetcorn soup, if you’d prefer.

Nurturing. I’m nurturing bitterness at getting such a useless star sign when I should have been a Leo. How about that?

It may be a load of old rubbish whatever way you decide to look at it. Astronomers generally ask that their practices of observing the stars be far removed from astrologers telling us they influence personality, so as far as they are concerned astrology has been rubbish all along.

And the astrologists are eager to get their allegations of garbage in too. According to Salon, professional astrologists believe that the Minnesota Planetarium Society is trying to throw doubt on astrology full stop. “Zodiac” is apparently used differently within each discipline, sort of the same way politicians and HR use words we think we understand in a whole new and interpretive way. (See “restructure”, “budget” and “Un-Australian”.)

A professional astrologer, Matthew Currie has this to say:

The Zodiac, the twelve divisions of the sky made up of the horoscope signs, and the Zodiac, the band of constellations in the sky, are two different things. This is how a lot of skeptics of astrology trick people to convince themselves and others that there’s nothing to astrology. But in reality, we’re talking about two different things.

Well, doesn’t that make it all sound completely sensible. Still, at least I now have an option on another star sign, even if it’s not the one I want. Despite the fact that the zodiac has apparently bumped along, I’m still not a fiery Leo – the darn thing has gone backwards and now, instead of being a moody Cancer, I’m a mercurial Gemini.

Which is totally different, of course.