A Scheme of Heaven, Astrology and the Birth of Science, by Alexander Boxer, Profile Books Limited, London 2020, ISBN 978178125963
This is an unusual book, written by an unusual proponent of astrology. The author, Alexander Boxer, is an American data scientist with a PhD in physics and degrees in the history of science and classics.
Judging from experience after having read dozens of tomes wherein high-calibre scholars of the hard sciences treat astrological concepts as simpletons’ playground fantasies of the past, I was expecting Boxer to have published a book that would find its way straight onto the library shelf labelled ‘pseudoscience ‘. But to my delight, my worries turned out to be unfounded. Here, and possibly for the first time, is an author with scientific credentials, willing to immerse himself in the subject of astrology without any visible bias, study its history and apply statistical methods to come to his own conclusions.
The structure of the book is loosely based on the history of astrology and, straight from the beginning, one can see that Boxer has done his homework. Much to the delight of this reviewer the title Boxer chose for his book is taken straight from William Lilly, who used to refer to an astrological chart as a ‘Scheme of Heaven’ in his Christian Astrology. Boxer writes that:
“As an homage to this art, I’ve included a number of these heavenly schemes throughout this book as a way to show how the solar system was configured at key moments in astrology’s history.”
In his book, the author introduces an interesting and innovative way of displaying astrological charts. Instead of the usual pie-charts, he uses what he calls “astrolabe-style”. I am not sure how useful this would be when trying to interpret a chart, but in its context the astrolabe style adds to the scientific feel the book conveys. Throughout the book, Boxer spends a lot of time, explaining the different parts of an astrolabe and their functions. He also presents one of the more lucid explanations of heavenly houses, without overburdening the averagely interested reader. By the end of the book, Boxer promises, the reader will:
“… be able to visualise the sky in these charts as intuitively as you can see your house in its floor plan …”
Throughout the book, Boxer applies his trained mind of a data scientist, investigating different astrological topics. Here his love for statistical analysis and his ease of handling high amounts of data come to the foreground. When discussing the intricate patterns in the use of the words astrology and astronomy through history, or investigating the probability of finding a disproportionately high number of Libras amongst lawyers and judges, Boxer always manages to explain his reasoning and his methods. His findings are very clear and precise, even if they will astound some of his readers. What surprised me, for example, was the outcome of the question “how unique is a horoscope?”. I am not going to reveal what Boxer’s conclusions were, in the hope that the gentle readers of my blog will rush out and purchase Boxer’s book to find out for themselves.
All in all, A Scheme of Heaven is a well written book, never too complicated and never too detailed. Short chapters make for easy reading, keeping the reader interested for long periods of time. At the end of the book, Boxer admits that he was amazed about astrology’s ability to connect many subjects with each other. He comes to the conclusion that:
“… it may not be ‘cosmic sympathy’ but there is an undeniable power in astrology to reveal the surprising ways in which everything and all of us are connected to each other across time and space.”
A Scheme of Heaven is an entertaining book, but sadly, there are some key elements that this reviewer finds to be missing. When it comes to judicial astrology, Boxer has obviously problems to get to grips with the fact that, traditionally, the moment the (Horary) astrologer chooses to cast the Horary chart is dependent on the astrologer’s understanding of the question, which is not necessarily the moment the querent was asking the question. Boxer,’s scientifically trained mind is so repulsed by the obvious lack of cause and effect, that he writes:
“I think I can speak for most twenty-first-century readers when I say that as a means of forecasting the future, it sounds totally nuts.”
Maybe, here would have been an opportunity to investigate further and quote Dr Nicholas Campion, course director of the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, who is mentioned in the book. Campion wrote in his Book of World Horoscopes:
“… in horoscopic (as opposed to natural) astrology, there is no necessary connection between the objective time of birth and the act of astrological interpretation….”
Campion takes this approach from the work of Dr. Geoffrey Cornelius, author of The Moment of Astrology, in my opinion one of the most important astrological publications of the 20th Century. In its foreword, Dr. Patrick Curry states that:
“Cornelius can fairly lay claim to have broken the mould first cast by Ptolemy in the first century A.D….”.
What also struck me is Boxer’s approach to real-time astrology. He writes that he went out and got his horoscope read. For this purpose he stopped by in a little town called Sedona, a thriving New Age community of crystal healers, aura readers, astrologers, and spiritual teachers of every persuasion. There he:
“… was handed a slick-looking, personalised, thirty-page astrological report.”
I find it somewhat disappointing that, after having invested so much time and effort to study the history as well as the inner workings of astrology, Boxer was unwilling or unable to find a professional astrologer who wasn’t reliant on a computer generated delineation. One wonders how much more could have been revealed to Boxer in a personalised reading, and what effect that would have had on the content of his book.