ODD TRUTHS: CAN THE STARS AFFECT HUMAN BEHAVIOUR?
One of mankind’s oldest and most enduring ideas is the belief that planets and stars determine the destinies of individuals and societies. Ascertaining these secret causes was “the goal of the wise”, which is why the world’s earliest star-gazers were often mathematicians and philosophers. They mapped the courses of the heavenly bodies, thinking that their movements, like faraway emissions of energy, could positively or negatively affect temperament and physical attributes. Thus marriages, pilgrimages, even medical treatments were mindfully undertaken with proper recourse to astronomical auspices.
In the West, this sort of thinking was popularised by Hellenistic writers who built on Stoic beliefs in the existence of a universal spirit or quintessence that connected heaven and earth. Neoplatonists expanded Stoic terminology, positing a hierarchical chain of lower and higher worlds. They argued that the material world was subject to the supervening wills of hypercosmic beings who acted upon the cosmos through planetary and stellar intermediaries.
For many people, sophisticated astrological practice was therapeutic. However, common misinterpretations of astrological causality contributed to superstitions. For example, in the Renaissance, phrases like “blast of the stars”, “planet-stricken”, and “moon-struck” were frequently used to explain sudden death. These fatalistic beliefs in the knockout power of planetary bodies were abused by charlatans and may have helped to delegitimise astrology and other occult sciences during the Enlightenment.
In the early twentieth century however, Russian helibiologist Alexander Chizhevsky set out to scientifically prove that all humans were perennially starstruck. In his book, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, George M. Young points out that Chizhevsky believed that human blood flows with the “vein of the cosmos”. Chizhevsky linked space weather with inner meteorology, that is, the psychology of human beings. Specifically, he claimed that human behaviour was influenced by solar cycles and storms. His premise isn’t as implausible as it initially seems.
It’s true that the radiation from powerful solar flares can disrupt telecommunications. A particularly strong flare could create a Doomsday situation. In the Smithsonian Magazine, Joseph Stromberg writes, “A giant storm could disrupt our GPS systems, communication with planes in flight and other crucial satellite-based technologies”.
It’s also true that geophysical catastrophes can have far-reaching consequences on cultural movements. One example of this was the eruption of the Tambora volcano in 1815. Particles from the ash cloud remained in the earth’s atmosphere for two years, which led to Northern Europe’s “Year Without A Summer”. The tempestuous weather stimulated Lord Byron, William Polidori, and the Shelleys while they were summering near Lake Geneva. Their dramatic writings, full of notions of melancholy and sublimity, became staples of the Gothic genre.
From a religious perspective, another seismic event might have had an even greater effect on human culture. In her book, The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus, Barbara Sivertsen argues that the cataclysmic Minoan eruption of 1628 B.C.E and other Mediterranean volcanisms shaped Jewish mythology.
The complicated relationship between societies and ecology has also been explored in the works of Jared Diamond. Instead of the astral determinism of some Pre-Modern thinkers, Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, proposes a type of climatic and geographical determinism, arguing that the historical prosperity of certain cultures arose from randomly displaced natural resources.
Ultimately, Chizhevsky thought that his hypothesis could transcend particular cases and serve as a theory of everything. On a macrocosmic scale, his theory suggests that the rise and fall of civilisations and other significant events in global history are directly related to the Sun’s thermal activity. Young writes:
“As human beings with only five senses and other limitations, even when aided by mechanical devices, we are aware of only a very small fraction of the innumerable rays, waves, particles, forces, and bundles of energy that constantly bombard our planet and us, forces from both within our solar system and beyond. According to Chizhevsky, these waves and particles of energy come at us in regular, measurable patterns of periodicity, in cycles and rhythms of which we may not be conscious, but which lend order, rhythm, and cycles of periodicity to our lives.”
To strengthen his theory, Chizhevsky collected statistical data of the peak points in the activity of humanity and the Sun, assembling his work into a number of graphs and charts. The correlations were apparently convincing enough for him to conclude that “universal human-military political activity” is entirely dependent on “sun spot activity”.
Chizhevsky’s research was daring and controversial. The alternate history it postulated could not be accepted by the Soviet establishment. Agents tipped off Josef Stalin and Chizhevsky was sent to the Gulag in 1947. After eight years of hard labour, he was released. He died in 1964 after years of re-indoctrination.
Today, Chizhevsky’s theories, known collectively as “historiometry” are generally dismissed by scientists. Nonetheless, his research is an attestation to the allure of celestial bodies and their lasting importance to humanity.
When, in 1980, Carl Sagan said that “the cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star stuff”, he was repeating a fact that was in some sense known to the ancients. In a way, the longing for communion with the heavens is an atavistic one, a faint memory of galactic progenitors. After all, according to The Nebular Hypothesis, Earth was created by gravitational forces inside a debris-ridden solar nebula.