Zodiac signs may be off kilter, professor says

MIAMI — When astronomers in 2006 declared that Pluto was no longer a planet, the world gasped — and then obeyed. School textbooks were re-written, and scientific discovery ruled the day.

Then this week, a Minnesota astronomy professor took on something even more sacred — our horoscopes.

The astrological calendar was all wrong, he said in public comments that set the Internet aflame.

People might think they're a Pisces (compassionate, imaginative), but often they're really an Aquarius (witty, clever) — at least based on an exact reading of the Earth's orbit. Or maybe, if you were born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17, you're actually a strange new zodiac sign: Ophiuchus, the serpent holder. But who wants to admit to being that snake-guy sign on a first date?

"I defined the zodiac by the constellations that are in the background when you look at where the sun, moon, and stars are," said Minneapolis Community and Technical College instructor Parke Kunkle, the man responsible for momentarily turning the astrology world upside down. "Ophiuchus has been around a long time, and the sun has been going through Ophiuchus for thousands of years."

In Kunkle's 13-member zodiac, the signs occupy more or less space on the calendar depending upon how long they are in the sun's path.

Although Ophiuchus (seeker of wisdom, lucky) has only what amounts to a celestial toe in the sun's path, Kunkle defended its inclusion by noting it hosts the sun for more than twice as long as Scorpio (independent, passionate).

Leading astrologers, after getting their collective bearings, were unified and defiant in their response: Not this time, Science.

"It holds no water," said South Florida's self described "master astrologer" Jeffrey Brock. Brock said it was a "completely unfounded" attempt by scientists to discredit astrology, which they had never been fond of to begin with.

Proclaimed Miami astrologist Ron Archer: "Mythology is always true."

Even uber-astrologist Walter Mercado weighed in, telling El Nuevo Herald that there would be no need to change its horoscopes.

Kunkle's re-examining of astrology is rooted in the Earth's "precession" — put simply, the gravity-fueled change in orientation of the Earth's rotational axis.

"The Earth sort of spins like a top," explained Florida International University physics professor James Webb. "It usually doesn't just stand up straight and spin, it usually wobbles."

"Astrologers for years have not taken that into account," Webb continued. "So now people are starting to call them on it."

Hogwash, responded Brock, director of the Astrological and Metaphysical Research Center. Brock said the brand of astrology practiced by the vast majority of the Western world focuses on the first day of spring — an ever-shifting date that compensates for the planet's rotational habits.

As for the inclusion of Ophiuchus, Brock said "we've always known about Ophiuchus" but that because the constellation only barely touches the sun's path, it is not truly a zodiac sign.

Up in Minnesota, Kunkle said the publicity frenzy surrounding his remarks has prompted media calls from as far away as France. Kunkle noted that he's by no means the first member of the scientific community to raise this issue (it's been debated for thousands of years). But thanks to the Twitter-ing, Facebook-ing age we live in, he might just be the most famous.

Kunkle has never been a horoscope reader. When people ask his sign, he usually tells them "vegetarian."

Recalling all the paintings and poems inspired by the stars, Kunkle argued that there's plenty of reasons for people to look skyward without believing in astrology:

"What they get then is the beauty of the universe, the beauty of the cosmos out there."