Yes, Mercury Is in Retrograde. So What?

by Andy Newman

Published: November 11, 2006

Perhaps you’ve noticed that things have gone a bit screwy the past couple of

Traffic jams materialize out of nowhere. Your luggage makes an unscheduled
stop in Sumatra. The computer eats your dissertation. Your favorite
political party loses control of both houses of Congress.

If you have friends who follow the stars, they may have had a ready
explanation for you: the planet Mercury is in retrograde.

For those not in the know, this is a vagary of planetary alignment that
occurs about three times a year. From one night to the next, Mercury moves
from east to west against the background constellations, reversing its
normal course. Mercury began its latest reverse journey on Oct. 28; it will
continue on a wayward path until Nov. 18.

And in astrological circles, it is well established that when Mercury, the
winged messenger, flies backward across the heavens, all manner of havoc is
unleashed on the earth.

“The retrograde periods are time periods when we experience communication,
travel and information breakdowns,” Anne Massey, a vice president of the
International Society for Astrological Research, writes on the Web site

Of course, there will always be those knee-jerk rationalists who insist that
in a world with trillions of possible occurrences, it is easy to find a few
that fit a given hypothesis. But aren’t they, too, slaves to a sort of
superstition, blinded by their faith in randomness?
In an effort to enlighten scoffers and believers alike, The New York Times
set out to statistically determine the terrestrial effects of retrograde

It wasn’t easy. Some potentially Mercury-related phenomena are resistant to
empirical measurement — crossed signals between spouses, botched pizza
orders, busted real-estate deals. Other statistics proved difficult to pry
out of their keepers. “It’s just not something that we’re able to sort of
respond to,” said an I.B.M. spokesman, Jim Larkin, when asked for data on
network service interruptions during retrograde episodes.

But eventually, a handful of trouble indicators were gleaned and analyzed,
mostly from the transportation sector.

Does Mercury control automobile traffic? It does not, according to data
provided by Transcom, a regional traffic-monitoring agency.

During the retrograde periods in spring 2005 and 2006, Transcom counted an
average of 41.9 major events per day — accidents, car fires, stoplight
malfunctions and the like — on local roads.

During comparable nonretrograde periods, the average was 42.4 per day. That
amounts to a decline of 1 percent in traffic headaches during retrograde

Can Mercury slow the trains? Doubtful. Metro-North and New Jersey Transit
statistics from the past three years showed that trains were 0.4 percent
less likely to arrive late when Mercury was in retrograde.

All this did not surprise Stephen J. Daunt, an assistant professor of
astronomy at the University of Tennessee. Mercury’s apparent migration, he
said, is an optical illusion caused by the difference in the orbit speeds of
Mercury and Earth. He compared it to driving on a highway and passing a cow
that is walking in the same direction. The cow appears to be moving
backward. But it’s not.

“From a scientist’s point of view,” he said, “Mercury moving backward in the
sky shouldn’t really bother people very much.”

But what about the sky itself? Might Mercury unsettle air travel?

Perhaps. According to figures from the federal Bureau of Transportation
Statistics, the percentage of late flights into and out of La Guardia
Airport during the past three summers rose to 24.6 during retrograde periods
from 22.8 during nonretrograde periods.

What’s more, during the past three years, claims of mishandled domestic
baggage rose to 5.44 per 1,000 passengers during months when Mercury spent
more than half the time in retrograde from 5.38 per 1,000 in months when the
planet was not in retrograde. That works out to one extra lost bag per
15,000 passengers. If you feel that your bag might be the one, you might
want to rethink your travel plans.

Ms. Massey said in a telephone interview that based on her readings, the
current retrograde episode was particularly likely to result in missing

“At the moment I am giving a heads-up for people to be on the lookout for
theft,” she said. “Most of us have to let go of something.”

The Police Department was consulted. During the first full week of the
current retrograde period, burglaries were down 20 percent and car thefts
were down 21 percent from the same (nonretrograde) week last year.
“We’ve got Mercury on the run in New York City,” said Paul J. Browne, the
department’s chief spokesman.

Perhaps the most frequently cited Mercury effect of the modern era is the
computer crash. “I hear that all the time,” said David Cook, a manager at
Tekserve in Chelsea, which says it is the nation’s biggest independent
servicer of Apple computers. He ran some numbers. The result: a piddling 0.6
percent increase in repair requests when Mercury is in retrograde.

Bruce Schaller, an expert on transportation statistics and former research
director at New York City Transit, examined The Times’s statistical findings
and pronounced the influence of Mercury to be conclusively insignificant.
“If all this is due to randomness,” he said, “that’s the result you’d

Ms. Massey was unimpressed. “I don’t think that such short periods are
statistically anything,” she said. “You’ve just taken a couple of years.”
She said that for an upcoming book on Mercury, “I’m going to be looking at
thousands of years of data to see what kinds of patterns emerge.”
Mr. Cook of Tekserve, who described himself as a committed skeptic on
astrology, said he would continue to offer his own pet theory to his

“My excuse is, this is Earth, and 5 to 10 percent of everything on Earth is
broken,” he said, “whether it’s a sewing machine, or a computer, or a

Not that he has any hard data to back up his claim.

“I don’t really know,” he said. “But that’s what I’ve heard from other

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