Sunday, June 14, 2009

The first star if Pseudoscience

Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, also known as the Celestial Medicine Man is a constellation up there in the sky. It's no Oprah, but it beats her on age.

We have a long history in pseudoscience. The medicine man is an old concept. There are cures, herbs, and ceremonies all aimed at cures for either disease or the demons that cause disease. Not much different than health magnets or copper bracelets to help golfers. Of course there is all that hoodoo over Voodoo.

But what has changes? Science! If you can create an experiment that proves it, well it is science. If you have trouble repeating experiments, well that is the medicine man. Not that it doesn't work, just that you need to believe in the placebo/nocebo affects or you have to have a real effect that just has not been studied well.

The medicine man was a sort of scientist. Things worked and failed as you might expect. But things that worked, well they worked and were repeated. That is why we have drug companies making money. But the problem with a lot of the medicine man's bag of tricks was based on placebo/nocebo and blind luck. Sometimes taking mushrooms and blowing smoke will coincide with the patient just getting better - that's why I love herbal cold cures because they all eventually work!

We often associate Astrology with the stars (like Oprah), but this star sign is both a medicine man and a part of the astrological zodiac path. That deserves a bit of explanation as well.

Ophiuchus is also called an unlucky Zodiac sign. It isn't in the Zodiac, but that's the point. The Sun is in Ophiuchus more than twice as long as in Scorpius. Sort of a limbo for anyone born between November 30th and December 18th. So neither Scorpius or Sagittarius between those two dates. Unlucky for astrologers too because it is bad when not even the constellations add up scientifically.

But if you are born under this in-between sign, are you likely to be good at pseudoscience? Probably not. You can't believe in this because astronomy does not allow you to. Sorry, just 12 signs are valid.

It is like Pluto. Do you know why Pluto was demoted as a planet? Simple: It is silly to change all those astrology charts for a spec of light that astrologers can't see (most don't own telescopes).

There are other things about this contellation help us think about psudoscience. There is a star in this constelation called Barnard's Star, a 9.5-magnitude red dwarf (or a height challenged star for the politically correct). It is also called the Runaway Star. Running away is putting it mildly because it travels at 103 miles per second (0.06% the speed of light). This star is smoking! From our point of view on the Earth, Barnard's Star moves the distance of the full moon in just 180 years. Use the metaphors at will, but I'd make this akin to the snake oil salesman trying to get out of the neighborhood.

Speaking of neighborhoods, the runnaway star is the second closest star to our solar neighborhood at only 6.8 light years. It is just a tad farther away than Alpha Centauri. Actually, that is a lie perpetrated by bad high school text books. Barnard's is really the fourth closest star because Alpha Centauri consists of thee stars. I guess there is science, pseudoscience, and old science in high school text books.

On a personal note, Bernard's Star holds a special place in my history. I once had a high school buddy who claimed to be from Bernard's star. Because he was adopted and a bit weird, it is a possibility we could not find adequate evidence to disprove the claim.