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."