This almost unknown book, written by the late John Sladek under a pseudonym, is very good, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who is genuinely
interested in how science works. Not because it's suddenly convinced me that there's a thirteenth sign of the Zodiac, called Arachne, the Spider, and that people born under it are psychic - I still have serious doubts about that. What's impressive is that it shows you how easy it is to be fooled by well-presented lies. Of course, the idea is preposterous; if you're in any doubt, he explicitly winks at you a few times. I particularly liked the ancient Babylonian calculations of the length of the nodical month (I'd never heard of it before either), which agree with modern values to within a tenth of a second. All due to that famous astronomer, Kidinnu.
But, despite everything, in the face of solemnly presented charts, statistics, anecdotes, historical arguments etc, I discover every now and then, to my horror, that I'm starting to wonder whether there might not be something to it. He's done a good job. So imagine what it's like when you don't
know in advance that what you're reading is nonsense. I will be much more careful next time I review a scientific paper, and do my best to maintain a properly skeptical attitude. It's not enough just to note that what I'm reading sounds plausible. Kick it around. Does it actually make sense? I realize I don't think that way often enough. The book is a fine wake-up call.
I'm not sure I can present a decent summary of the argument, which is wonderfully bizarre and has a certain poetic force to it. The ingredients contain at least the following: there is an opposition between the forces of reason, identified with the Sun and Yang, and the forces of mysticism, identified with the Moon and Yin; the Zodiac we know is the "Solar Zodiac"; a lunar month contains 28 days, hence we have 13 lunar months in a year; the Solar Zodiac has 12 signs, but the Lunar Zodiac needs an extra sign; the ancient Druidic religion, forced underground by Christianity, used the Lunar calendar; 28 is a perfect number, and perfect numbers have mystical properties; there are connections between the Moon, Crete, the Minotaur (= geMINI + TAURus, you see), Ariadne, Arachne, spiders, labyrinths and threads; the missing sign of Arachne, the Spider, must be between Taurus and Gemini, to be exact between May 16 and June 13; psychic people are born disproportionally often during that period; and they consist of exactly 5% of the population, a number which he obtains to two decimal places (!) though some delightfully bogus astrological/genetic calculations. Sladek was an imaginative guy.
Oh, and while searching for a picture of the cover I learned that it has been translated into Japanese. How about that?
Damn! Sladek got me! Four years after posting this review, I discover in Neugerbauer's The Exact Sciences in Antiquity
that there really WAS a famous Babylonian astronomer called Kidinnu!
How many more Easter eggs are there in his book?