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Unlikely Pairing of Astronomy and Astrology

Ben Mayer is about to make history--again.

On Friday at the Bahia Hotel, the 60-year-old amateur astronomer will cross the ideological barricade between astrology and astronomy--two disciplines that, until the 17th Century, were practiced simultaneously by some of the greatest minds in history, including Galileo and Johannes Kepler.

Mayer, author of “Starwatch,” “Halley’s Comet Finder” and “The Cambridge Astronomy Guide” (with William Liller), will speak before 1,000 astrologers expected at the United Astrology Congress at the Mission Bay hotel.

At some risk to his hard-earned credibility, Mayer will be urging his audience to return to the practice of physically observing the stars, which once formed a large part of the astrologer’s practice. It was astrology that supplied thousands of years of observation data for the first astronomers.

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Mayer’s lecture and 140 other speakers scheduled between Thursday and July 1 will be open to the public, according to convention organizer Angel Thompson. Topics will range from the astronomer’s passionate introduction to astrophotography to “palimony” attorney Marvin Mitchelson’s address on the “transformation of human rights.”

It will be the largest astrological convention ever held, Thompson said.

Thompson’s friendship with Mayer has much to do with his plan to address the conference. Since they met years ago on an eclipse-chasing cruise, the two casual friends (both Scorpios, by the way) have broadened each other’s perspectives, they said. They believe it is time to open a line of communication between the long-feuding disciplines.

The German-born, English-educated Mayer made his first historical impact in 1975 when he captured the first-ever recorded photographs of a nova (an exploding star) before, during and after the 36-hour cataclysmic event.

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Incredibly, Mayer, still a beginner, took his photographs of Nova Cygni on the roof of his house in light-polluted West Los Angeles, using a standard lens on a 35mm camera and a lawn sprinkler timer he rigged up himself to open and close the shutter at periodic intervals. When they didn’t reveal the meteor streaks he was looking for, Mayer threw all his photos in the trash.

Word of the nova’s “discovery” by a Japanese observer sent him scurrying home to that wastebasket. The nova was there--smack in the middle of the constellation Cygnus (also known as the Northern Cross). Mayer was soon on the phone with Boston’s Center for Astrophysics of the Harvard College Observatory and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, excitedly registering his first claim to serious recognition by the astronomical community.

“The reason I did it is because I did not know I could not do it,” he explained recently by phone from his home in Bel Air.

Mayer eventually resigned as chairman of his successful architectural and interior design corporation to pursue his love affair with the stars full time, putting his son in charge of the company and focusing his Royal College of Art background on new inventions to simplify amateur astronomical discoveries.

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Since then he has co-written a book with a highly respected Harvard professor of astronomy, published several articles, illustrated and written two books, been named “amateur of the year” by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and had an asteroid named after him in honor of his invention of a photo-comparing device called PROBLICOM.

“To me the word amateur, which stems from the word amore, from the word love, is a delightful word and I think no place is it better used than in astronomy, where the amateur since the beginning of time has done truly meaningful and useful work, because he or she observes with no prejudice, because he has no brownie points to rack up. He doesn’t have to give a paper on Monday. He is a lover--he does it for love,” Mayer said.

“I knew nothing about the limitations of astronomy, and this is why I will be in San Diego. This is why I will try to enthuse people down there to embrace the same philosophy that I have always felt and lived by.”

It is Mayer’s admitted passion for astronomy that is leading him on this particular campaign. He wants to show astrologers how easy it is to “collect starlight” on film, using a coat hanger, some plastic wrap and a star map to find their way in a simple system he outlines in “Starwatch” for people who love the stars as much as he does.

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“I’d like to have them, when they go out in the desert or on the roof of their house, say, ‘Oh, God, look up there! It’s the constellation Saggitarius--it looks like a teapot!’ ”

Mayer’s enthusiasm poured through the telephone in a German-accented melody.

“Go out some night . . . to a dark-sky location and look at the heavens,” he urged. “It’s like a sky filled with diamonds spread out on a velvet black cloth--and anybody can play in this sandbox filled with diamonds.”

If his friends in astronomy look askance at his communion with astrologers, Mayer is not likely to be concerned.

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“My art background says to me there are so many things that we do not know that who the hell gives us the right to say that we do know, that we have the right to lord it over astrology?” he said. “Strangely enough, science today has begun to show the same overbearance, the same presumptuousness the church had 400 years ago when they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake because he did not conform to thinking that was then fashionable and embraced by the church.

“The fact that we do not know doesn’t mean that we will never know,” he added. “It just behooves us to regard . . . the heavens with a little more benefit of the doubt. . . . When you walk out under a starlit sky, if you cannot feel this feeling of awe and magnificent beauty that astronomy or the stars bring you, that astrology can bring you, then you’re missing one of the very lovely feelings that man is capable of.”

Thompson, a professional astrologer who lives in Venice, Calif., met Mayer when she signed on for an eclipse-chasing cruise because she wanted to corner author Carl Sagan, who was scheduled to be on the expedition. Sagan’s derogatory remarks toward astrologers had for years caused her to conduct an unanswered letter-writing campaign, and this, she thought, would be her chance to point out some basic errors in his thinking, face to face.

It turned out Sagan wasn’t there, but Thompson, the only astrologer on a ship full of scientists, had brought her camera along. She captured an eclipse photo that was published on the cover of Astronomy magazine in 1977, with a little encouragement from her new friend, Ben Mayer.

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Partly because astrology was forced to survive the Dark Ages by reducing its ancient knowledge to a system of intricate symbols, and partly because it has been outlawed until just recently in most states (it is still illegal in some places), many people are confused about the hows and whys of astrology, Thompson said.

“The general public has this misconception that astrology is something to believe in, or it is something that takes away your free will. It’s not that at all,” she said. “Astrology is not a belief system.”

She likens it instead to an information system, based on a concept that the universe moves and functions in a harmonic interplay, that everything operates on this universal principle, from planets and suns to oysters and antelope herds. Astrology postulates that human beings are an integral part of this system and thus function through the same harmonic principles.

“If we took you as a living organism and we said, OK, this is the whole solar system, and we draw (on you) all the signs of the zodiac . . . and then I come up to you and I punch you in the stomach, the whole system is going to feel it,” Thompson explained. “The whole system is going to respond to the impulse that occurred in one part.”

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It’s the unseen aspect of the connection that causes philosophical skepticism. But many important elements of life are imperceptible by human senses, she pointed out.

“We know that if we turn on the radio, we hear music. . . . We can’t see where it comes from, but we know that those radio waves are coming through the air and are being channeled to us,” Thompson said. “And we’re picking up those vibes through the radio, we’re picking up vibes through the television--and those are only man-made vibes, but they are modeled after the physical world.

“You go out into the street and you know the telephone wires are overhead and people are talking but we don’t hear it. So, as human organisms, we’re limited as to what our senses can perceive, and yet we know with our mind that there is more.

“Astrology is not something hocus-pocus. It’s not something that is mystical. It’s an information system that is 25,000 years old.”

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Thompson does not think people should turn to astrology as an escape, something to take over the responsibility for their lives. But for major events it can be helpful, she believes. For example, any astrologer looking at the time of launch of the space shuttle Challenger would have added another “nay” vote to the pro and con data being compiled before that fateful event, she said.

There are strong, convincing arguments on both sides of the astrology vs. astronomy debate. But Mayer and Thompson see a way around the dispute, an opportunity to work together to expand knowledge inwardly and outwardly at the same time. Quantum physics is approaching this union, both agreed. Meanwhile, there is much to be gained in simple communication.

“You will not find the word God in the index of an astronomy book,” Mayer said, “and you will not find any kind thoughts about astrology. . . . It is much safer and much easier to knock it. Well, what will come of that? We didn’t know X-rays existed until Mr. (Wilhelm) Roentgen accidentally discovered them, and today we know they not only allow you to look through your bones, but they allow you to look at the heavens, with light that wasn’t even invented a hundred years ago--X-ray light.

“If astrologers and astronomers come in touch and they learn from each other, perhaps the astrologers will learn celestial photography and the astronomers will learn philosophy. Then we will have bridged a tremendous gap--and we will have done an awful lot of good for mankind.”

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