What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. In 2019, that means March 5-28, July 7-August 2, and October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

Who Has Jurisdiction for Crimes Committed in Space?

iStock/nedelcupaul
iStock/nedelcupaul

It's 2050. Humans have mastered commercial space travel. Hundreds of people pay thousands of dollars to be sent into orbit in a spaceship. Maybe some decide to help colonize Mars.

Then, trouble. A jilted spouse. A smuggled firearm. Perhaps a struggle followed by suffocation. A space traveler is found dead on board a ship or on the Red Planet. Who has jurisdiction over such crimes? Is there such a thing as a cosmic Hercule Poirot? Could someone fall through the cracks and get away with space murder?

To date, no one has been victim of a space crime. But because no one nation can lay claim to ownership of space, the idea of a criminal offense committed outside of our atmosphere is something people have already given some thought to.

According to NASA engineer and instructor Robert Frost, the language of law for galactic felonies would be the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In Article VIII of the treaty, nations engaging in space exploration agree that they will bear responsibility for the actions of personnel aboard their craft. In other words, if a privatized shuttle from China sees a fight break out among crew members, leaving one injured, China would be the entity responsible for handling legal repercussions.

That varies slightly with the International Space Station, or ISS, which is home to a number of personnel from different nations. In the case of the ISS, an intergovernmental agreement signed in 1998 mandates that the home country of the offender will handle any investigation or prosecution. If the victim is a national of another country, that country will have the right to inquire as to the criminal status of the offender and seek to have jurisdiction over the matter if they feel justice isn't being meted out.

In most cases, space crime sprees would be treated the same as if an offender was traveling in a foreign country or in international waters. If you're a U.S. citizen and decide to bludgeon someone at sea or on the Moon, the various international agreements and national laws would determine how you get prosecuted. (Assuming, of course, you returned to Earth to answer the charges.)

Space crimes pose another intriguing wrinkle. In terra firma investigations, authorities can secure crime scenes, question witnesses, and preserve evidence. Aboard a spaceship or on a distant planet, these procedures would be difficult to perform, and almost impossible to do in a timely fashion. Even if a criminal investigator is on Mars, low gravity will affect blood spatter and bodies may even decay at a different rate than they do on Earth. While an American may be found liable for murder, proving it was malicious and not the result of the dangerous environment would give any prosecutor a headache. A defense attorney, on the other hand, would have a field day questioning defective spacesuits or toxic exposure to strange space chemicals.

Then again, prosecutors may not have to concern themselves with evidence. Thanks to airlocks and restrictive suits, the movement of space travelers is highly monitored. It would be hard to make any plausible deniability about one's whereabouts.

The closest thing to space crime that law enforcement has yet encountered may be crimes committed in Antarctica, the frigid and isolated continent that's unaffiliated with any country but operates under the Antarctic Treaty signed by 54 nations. The agreement declares that the suspect is likely under their home country's jurisdiction. In some cases, the country owning the research station where the alleged crime took place steps in. In 2018, a Russian researcher at Bellingshausen Station on King George Island went after his victim with a knife in the station's dining room. He was charged in Russia, though reports indicate the case has since been dropped. And in 2000, an Australian astrophysicist suspected of being fatally poisoned had an autopsy performed in New Zealand. The exam showed he had ingested methanol, but it remains unknown whether he did so accidentally or whether someone gave it to him. New Zealand police were unable to determine the source.

A person committing murder in space would certainly be held responsible. But whether they'd ever be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt remains very much up in—and beyond—the air.

Why Do Dogs Eat Grass?

iStock/K_Thalhofer
iStock/K_Thalhofer

If something is edible (or even if it's not), many dogs will gladly make a meal of it. But if you see your pet grazing on your front lawn like cattle, it may be driven by something more than its undiscerning appetite. Eating grass frantically can be a sign that a dog is sick.

It's not unusual to see a dog vomit after consuming grass, prompting some pet owners to wonder if their dog ate the grass to soothe its own upset stomach or if the grass is what caused its symptoms in the first place. According Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club, this behavior is sometimes a response to symptoms that were already present. "When dogs go outside and gobble grass really quickly, there's usually a reason, an instinctual behavior to try to induce some kind of gastrointestinal reaction," he tells Mental Floss. "When they realize they're nauseous or something else, the only thing they know how to do is to force themselves to vomit. Some dogs that eat grass chomp it down without really chewing it, and often times may vomit something up and that's how they treat themselves."

Despite it being a common issue for pet owners, little research has been done into why dogs eat grass. It's likely that stomach problems only explain this behavior part of the time. In other situations, a dog may eat grass for the same reason it eats your shoes or the groceries you left on the kitchen counter: Because it's hungry, anxious, or bored.

So how can you tell when your dog is munching grass for pleasure and when it's trying to induce itself to vomit? Pay attention to the way it eats. Dogs are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals, so just eating grass alone normally won't be enough to make it sick. But if a dog is gorging on grass faster than it can chew it, that may be an indication that something is wrong. Whole blades of grass can irritate a dog's throat and stomach lining, potentially causing them to throw up if they swallow a lot of them in a short amount of time.

No matter the reason for your dog's grass-eating habits, Klein says that they aren't a major issue. The behavior shouldn't be encouraged, as grass in public places can potentially carry harmful chemicals like pesticides, so stop your dog if you see it grazing. But if it shows no signs of illness or discomfort afterward, there's no need to rush it to the vet. "If I see a dog eating grass, I'm not going to panic. I would try to stop it and then monitor it to see how it acts in the next 15 to 20 minutes. Look at how the dog's acting, its body shape and movement, and the feeling you get from the dog."

One condition related to vomiting that would warrant a trip to the vet is something called bloat. This happens when a dog's stomach fills with air, causing it to retch without actually throwing anything up. This is a medical emergency and can be deadly if left untreated.

A dog who vomits after eating grass and looks happy afterward, on the other hand, is probably not a cause for concern—though you may argue otherwise when you're steam-cleaning your carpet.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER