A Scheme of Heaven: read an extract

06 January 2020

Despite a resurgence in popularity, horoscopes are generally considered to be pseudoscience today – but they were once a cutting-edge scientific tool. In this ingenious work of history, data scientist Alexander Boxer examines a treasure trove of esoteric classical sources to expose the deep imaginative framework by which – for millennia – we made sense of our fates. Astrology, he argues, was the ancient world’s most ambitious applied mathematics problem, a grand data-analysis enterprise sustained by some of history’s most brilliant minds, from Ptolemy to al-Kindi to Kepler.

A Scheme of Heaven explores the wonderful subtleties of astrological ideas. Telling the stories of their inventors and most influential exponents, Boxer puts them through their paces using modern data sets – finding that the methods of today’s scientists are often uncomfortably close to those of astrology’s ancient sages.

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A scheme of heaven


Do the stars and planets really have something to tell us about the cycles of history, the secrets of love, the reasons your last job was no longer right for you, and why everyone born in May is so incredibly amazing? Astrology’s unflinching reply is: yes, yes, yes, and definitely yes. That the configurations of the heavens above can influence our lives here on Earth below is, of course, the basic idea of astrology. Modern science has flatly rejected astrology’s claims but this hasn’t hobbled astrology’s charms, certainly not if the continued popularity of online and magazine horoscopes is anything to go by. Let’s leave to one side for a moment all the arguments about whether astrology is wrong, or right, or still wrong even when it’s sometimes right. I’m here to make the case that astrology is fascinating and still tremendously relevant as a challenge to what we think we know and why we think we know it.

For starters, the questions astrology asks— questions about the patterns of the universe and our place within them— are about as deep and as captivating as they come. If there really is a way to tap into the hidden rhythms of the cosmos, wouldn’t you want to know about it? But even more intriguing, at least from where I stand, is how astrology uses mathematics and data to investigate these questions. Over two thousand years ago, astrologers became the first to stumble upon the powerful storytelling possibilities inherent in numerical data, possibilities that become all the more persuasive when presented graphically in a chart or figure. Although it took a while for the rest of the world to catch on, the art of weaving a story out of numbers and figures, often to encourage a specific course of action, is used everywhere today, from financial forecasts to dieting advice to weather models.

And yet numbers still mislead, figures still deceive, and predictions still fail— sometimes spectacularly so— even those that rely on exceptionally sophisticated mathematics. So, are the techniques being used today to parse and package quantitative information any more effective than what was devised by astrologers millennia ago?

In order to make that assessment, it’s first necessary to have a basic understanding of what astrology is and how it works. But that sort of understanding— one that’s at least adequate to resolve some seemingly straightforward technical questions— is surprisingly hard to come by for such a long- lived and influential craft. Being frustrated in my own search for a simple yet competent overview of astrology, I decided I might just as well write one myself. This, curious reader, is the book you now hold in your hands.


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