At its core, A Scheme of Heaven is a plea for open minds. One might consider, for example, whether there is a vast difference between consulting the stars to predict the future and allowing algorithms to determine our data-driven destiny. Boxer suggests that in “ascertaining our shopping, reading, dining and voting preferences”, personalised algorithms come close to the blueprint for the horoscopes of old. “Regardless of whether astrology has distilled any truth or not”, he writes, “it has bottled up a certain type of magic, one that has proven time and again its ability to get us to stop and think about our connections to the wider universe.”
Boxer, a physicist and historian, kindles our admiration for the earliest astronomers. My favourite among his many jaw-dropping stories is the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. This is the process by which the sun, each mid-spring and mid-autumn, rises at a fractionally different spot in the sky every year. It takes 26,000 years to make a full revolution of the zodiac — a tiny motion first detected by Hipparchus around 130 BC. And of course Hipparchus, to make this observation at all, ‘had to rely on the accuracy of star-gazers who would have seemed ancient even to him’.
Boxer points out, astrology was not killed off but has merely adapted to new conditions. Newspapers here and in America carry astrological columns describing the personality traits relating to your zodiacal sign. These are, he regrets, “artfully vague” and “wishy-washy” compared with the forthright bulletins issued by the old astrologers, which might contain things about yourself you’d rather not know, including the hour of your death. Forman foretold his own accurately, even predicting correctly that it would take place in a boat on the Thames. Those who scan newspaper astrology columns, on the other hand, might well be driven by nothing more sinister than a wish to read something flattering about themselves, which must be a common human trait whatever your zodiacal sign.
While the maths isn’t written with the lay person in mind and the astrology at times goes in at the deep end, the anecdotes carry this otherwise quite readable work. Happily, there isn’t any indulgence of occult nonsense. This is a book about a very human aspect of astrology — our desire to understand our fate — and its history, as well as the fallibility of data analysis, which is often far more subjective than it might seem at first glance.