At a public lecture at the Community Center, the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt invited the public to explore the differences between astronomy and astrology — two radically different ways of seeing the sky that people often confuse.
Society member and Prince Georges County elementary school teacher Elizabeth Levin led the event, and emphasized — if you want to understand why you are the way you are, look to your parents, not the night sky.
The gathering was a mix of lecture and hands-on activities exploring both the science and superstition of the night sky and their common roots.
Levin explained that the most fundamental thing that astronomy and astrology have in common is that "both involve looking up."
Astronomers and astrologers are both keen observers of the sky who follow the precise movements of the Sun, moon, stars, and planets. But their purposes are fundamentally different.
To astrologers, the stars under which you were born influence personality, health, career and other fundamentals. To draw up astrological "charts," they look to, Levin explained, "things that move a little," such as stars; "things" that move a lot," like the moon and Sun; and "things that move strangely," such as the planets.
But astronomers challenge the factual basis for astrology. Levin explained that there is no good evidence that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, our destinies lie "in our stars" instead of "in ourselves."
Another important difference is that astrologers look to the past. They depend on ideas that have their roots thousands of years ago in ancient Babylonia.
Astronomers, in contrast, continually ask new questions and test their ideas against observation, explained Craig Levin, Elizabeth's husband and the secretary of the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt.
"While both are concerned with the stars, astronomy continually revises itself and expands the scope of its studies," Levin said. "Astrology, on the other hand, has remained the same, philosophically."
If the gap between astrology and astronomy is so vast, why even put the two in the same room?
"This is a way to get to people who may not be into science, to reach out in another way," explained Sue Basset, treasurer of the Society.
In the end, the sky is in the eye of the beholder, Elizabeth Levin said. "Some people look up at the stars of the constellation Cassiopeia and see a queen on her throne, she says. "I see a big W."
The Society of amateur stargazers holds a public event each month, typically with a speaker. They also sponsor, weather permitting, open public observing sessions called "star parties" at the club's observatory site at Northway Fields.
If you want to get some stars in your eyes, check out a star party with the Society. The next star party is set for 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3.
The Society will also be hosting an information table on Sept. 3, at the Labor Day celebration in Greenbelt.
The Society also holds periodic "sidewalk astronomy" events in . (Next scheduled, Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m.)