by chelsea schuyler
Alert: Nothing is Happening!
Mercury is in retrograde until April 15th – time for our triannual, or even quarterly panic! Yes, Mercury goes into retrograde for about 3 weeks, 3 to 4 times a year. That’s 9 to 12 weeks of panic, so get your stress hormones a-flowin.
But fear not! I’m here to sooth you with the fact that not only is there no evidence to suggest that Mercury affects us by doing anything differently, but in fact, Mercury isn’t doing anything differently at all.
Mercury in retrograde is the APPEARANCE of it moving backwards, based on our perspective from Earth.
Imagine you are a passenger on a bus that’s stopped at a stoplight. A semi truck pulls up next to you in the other lane.
The light turns green, and though both vehicles start to move forward, your bus accelerates faster than the truck. Looking out the window, the truck can APPEAR to be moving backwards, though it’s trudging on like normal.
This is referred to as ‘the truck in retrograde’, and everyone knows it causes computers to crash, relationships to foil, and new deals to be riddled with bad luck.
Sound like a ridiculous conclusion to make out of a perfectly normal, visual illusion? Welcome to astrology!
- Astrology – non-evidence-based projections of how planets and celestial bodies affect human lives. Henceforth referred to as astro-LIE-gy, to remind us of the ridiculousness of its assertions. Not that make-believe isn’t fun, or even good for inspiring conversation, but let’s make sure we aren’t propagating the kind of mindset that made us think epilepsy was due to demonic possession.
- Astronomy – an actual science studying planets and celestial bodies, without conclusions about humanity, and for good reason as we will explore. Henceforth referred to as astro-KNOW-my from here on out.
From Analogy to Actuality
The bus analogy is actually a pretty good one for planets in retrograde. ‘Retrograde’ means literally ‘backward step’ in Latin. All the planets in our solar system orbit the sun in ‘prograde’ – forward motion.
Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, which it orbits in a speedy 88 Earth days and in a smaller oval than Earth’s. As Mercury whips by and curves around, there’s a matter of weeks where it APPEARS to be going backwards.
Try this – point your finger up and put it at eye level. Now rotate it in a small, horizontal circle, starting from the left to the right. Notice that though your finger is always going in the same direction, it appears to your eye as though it were switching from right to left for a bit.
While Earth slowly orbits, Mercury is quickly orbiting around the sun in a tighter circle.
Here’s a great visual display I found, thanks to Vox: (1:29 – 1:59)
It’s not just Mercury by the way, all the planets at some point appear to be moving in retrograde from Earth’s perspective. You can actually take a picture of Mars every night and see the little dot move in one direction, then the opposite, then back to normal, over some weeks.
(You can’t do that as easily with Mercury because it’s always on the dayside of Earth, so the sun gets in the way).
Does Mercury Affect Our Personal Lives?
Astro-LIE-gy has it that when Mercury goes retrograde on us it can send electronics haywire, new relationships to future Vagina Monologues, and don’t dare sign any new contracts!
(Lest we repeat the horrors of signing the Declaration of Independence or the Voting Rights Act – both having occurred during Mercury in retrograde. Fools).
To be fair, it’s not such a stretch to think that maybe the celestial bodies out there might affect us in some way. The moon affects the ocean tides; the sun is the reason anything works. Humans are made out of mostly water, perhaps the moon pulls at us and changes our mood or something?
That not a bad question. Let’s look to the scientific method’s conclusions.
The Four Forces
When things have an effect on other things, it’s called a force. There are four fundamental forces.
The first two are the strong force and the weak force (oh the creativity!), but they only affect the tiny nuclei of atoms and such. These forces degenerate with distance, to the point where the ‘strong’ force pusses out after a few billionths of a meter.
The other two forces get all the attention, gravity and electromagnetism. So, do these planetary forces (particularly the minxy Mercury) affect us?
Well, gravity, as we know (see WTF are Gravitational Waves?), has a major affect if:
1) the mass of the object is great.
2) you’re close to it.
So, what’s massive and what’s close? To keep the numbers simple, lets look at mass and distance in comparison to Earth.
If we call Earth a mass of 1 and a distance of 0, the comparative masses/distances in the solar system (of note) are:
Note that the sun has 98% of the mass in the entire solar system, and the moon is closer to us by far than any of the planets, so if these were to affect our personal lives, these two bodies should be having the greatest effect, not Mercury.
The Moon’s Gravitational Effect on Us
However, notice the moon’s teeny mass, and your body’s infinitesimal mass. This kinda negates gravitational effect. To add perspective – if you’ve ever had a mosquito fly by, it had a greater gravitational force on you than the moon.
The Earth has over 320 million cubic miles of ocean, which are pulled at maximum of 38 feet (2 feet in open ocean). The Great lakes, when the moon and sun’s gravity are combined, moves 2 inches.
Fine print: tidal effect moves unbound bodies only. Our personal body of water is quite bound, like at the cellular level even. These non-powers combined, we are Captain (not-affected-by-a) Planet!
So how about electromagnetism? Again, we look to astro-KNOW-my.
Electromagnetic (EM) fields depend on electric charge and distance. Therefore, they mostly just affect the planet to which they belong, if they have one at all (the moon does not have a global EM field). Jupiter does, but again, Jupiter is friggin far, so nothing happens to us.
Mercury has one, but it’s 1.1% the strength of ours. And, if it were to affect us, it would be concentrated when near to us, not during random retrograde distances. Also, perspective check: medical scanners use EM fields 100,000 times stronger than Earth, to which the body feels only mild, temporary effects (assuming normal exposure – don’t go buying property in an MRI).
The sun bigtime has a magnetic field, and we DO feel it’s effect occasionally, if it gets all explodey and has solar flares. These spew charged particles on Earth, screwing with our communications systems, and even going so far as ground level causing transformers to blow, such as during the Quebec blackout in 1989.
That particular event was the equivalent of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time, the energy of which came straight to Earth at a million miles an hour. All that, and we got a power outage and some radio frequency jams, among others. Pretty small when you think about how direct and targeted we were.
Meanwhile, every quarter or so Mercury does absolutely nothing different than usual. And which one do we blame for electronic meltdowns?
So no, Mercury nor the planets have any effect on our personal decisions. The illusion of a fart in the wind isn’t even a fart.
Thanks Patreon Member!
This blog requested by Patreon member ‘C’, who’s work lunch was dominated by coworker’s Mercury-related paranoia. May you now quell their fears with all the science at your disposal.
photos in the public domain except:
mars movie: movie by , CC BY SA 4.0
captain planet cartoon: photo by Mark Anderson, CC by 2.0
captain planet man: photo by daisydeee, CC by SA 2.0
I always learn something — usually some things, plural — from your blog. Plus it’s very engaging and entertaining. Thanks for making otherwise daunting concepts understandable to folks like me.
You’re so welcome! Let me know if there’s anything you’ve been wondering about that I could (pretend like I knew about all along) explain!