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Highlights from the history of astrology reveal the origins of our quest to find meaning in data

A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for our Destiny in Data

Alexander Boxer
Norton
2020
336 pp.
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Alexander Boxer, a professional data scientist, knows a thing or two about distilling patterns from big data. Surrounded by constant, endless streams of information, humans are pattern-matching animals, and astrology, he claims, “is the universe’s grandest pattern-matching game.”

Boxer’s new book, A Scheme of Heaven, is an introduction to astrology that offers a handsome primer of the structures and concepts with which astrologers have tried to make our world of data manageable. He constructs his story as a historical narrative, picking out specific historical events to reveal the degree to which local religious, political, social, and cultural contexts shaped astrology’s pattern-matching game.

The book also exposes readers to the rigor of statistical analysis. Here, Boxer applies his knowledge of statistics to some of the most enduring and fascinating patterns that astrology educed from its constant comparisons between heavenly and terrestrial events. This combination of topics is usually the preserve of critics, who like to mobilize analyses of astrology’s conceptual apparatus, history, and statistical soundness to demonstrate the art’s vacuity. A Scheme of Heaven is different in that it seeks to offer a kind word for the endeavor.

Astrology was the first art to capitalize on “the powerful storytelling possibilities inherent in numerical data,” writes Boxer. In that regard, it was the predecessor of all modern big data disciplines. To be clear, Boxer is not a closet believer. He never argues, for example, for the reinstatement of the practice into the academy. (It was ousted in the second quarter of the 17th century.) His narrative takes a far more interesting tack.

Refreshingly, A Scheme of Heaven does not offer a comprehensive history of astrology but guides the reader along particularly important episodes in the practice’s story, taking cues from specific historical events, characters, and objects. The resulting gallery tour takes us from ancient Egyptian pyramids and coffin lids to Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. We learn of the cosmic models and analog calculators that Archimedes’ workshop might have contained, and astrological intelligence policy in 1st-century imperial Rome (and its relation to the philosophical schools of the time) becomes more vivid than ever. Descriptions of the ambitious programs to systematize and explain human diversity through astrology in 2nd-century Egypt and to turn astrology into a comprehensive theory of human history in 8th-century Baghdad amply convey the historical fascination with astrological patternmaking. Late medieval Italy, on the other hand, becomes the backdrop for exploring astrology as a science of practical algorithms that would not be out of place in the modern world of stock forecasts, whereas the Age of Aquarius sees astrology reworked into an art of spiritual counseling, a shift that Boxer traces to the theosophical movements of the 1870s.

A Scheme of Heaven—like all good history writing—turns its subject into a mirror. (In the words of the Roman poet Horatius, “the story is told about you.”) Statistics, Boxer shows, not only debunk astrology’s claims, they confirm that some of our most private behavior happens in step with cosmic rhythms today. History not only documents a distant past, it shows how intimately some of our most prestigious scientific traditions really are—as Johannes Kepler argued—the children of this foolish daughter. And like astrology, the patterns that data science reveals turn out to hinge on far more interpretation than we might like. Boxer points out, for example, how the contemporary combination of big data with machine-learning algorithms is rapidly creating a rift between empirical forecasting models and causal understanding—exactly the kind of rift that has often been invoked to criticize astrology.

In the closing pages of this excellent book, Boxer candidly voices his fear that his fellow scientists will misunderstand his efforts as an endorsement of astrology. From my own experience, I suspect academia is more neutral toward such enterprises than it once was. Recognizing the historical importance of astrology certainly makes for a far messier account of early scientific practices. Done correctly, however, these messier pictures of science only reinforce our appreciation of the amount of work that goes into it—and of the vulnerability of human wonder propelling it.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Ghent University, 9000 Ghent, Belgium.