Perhaps you've noticed that things have gone a bit screwy the past couple of weeks.
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 continued on a wayward path until yesterday.
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 astrologicallyspeaking.com.
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 Mercury.
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 IBM 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, judging by the data provided by Transcom, a regional traffic-monitoring agency.
During the retrograde periods in spring last year and this year, 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 1 percent decline in traffic headaches during retrograde episodes.
Can Mercury slow commuter 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.
Cows and air travel
All this did not surprise Steve Daunt, who teaches 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 US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the percentage of late flights into and out of New York's LaGuardia 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.
Massey said in a telephone interview that based on her readings, the current retrograde episode was particularly likely to result in missing possessions.
"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 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 Manhattan, 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, a specialist on transportation statistics and former research director at New York City Transit, examined the Times' 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 expect."
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."
Cook of Tekserve, who described himself as a committed skeptic on astrology, said he would continue to offer his own pet theory to his customers.
"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 relationship."
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 people."
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