Even if you’re not an avid fan of astrology, you’ve probably heard of Mercury retrograde—the planetary phenomenon we’ve all come to dread. Thought to affect communication and technology, it’s a time when everything can feel slightly out of whack. You may find yourself losing your keys, missing appointments, or your computer suddenly breaking down.
Scientifically speaking, Mercury retrograde is simply an optical illusion where the planet appears to change course and move backwards in the sky. When does it happen? Usually three or four times a year, with 2021’s all-important dates being: January 30 to February 21, May 29 to June 22, and September 27 to October 23.
Interestingly enough, the first retrograde is happening in the astrological sign of Aquarius, which is proving to be a very significant sign this year, with the new Age of Aquarius—a sign associated with “abrupt change, forming communities, fighting for causes that you care about, and making technological advances,” according to astrologer Alice Bell. The next two retrogrades are also taking place in air (otherwise known as thinking) signs—Gemini and Libra—meaning they could be good times to reflect.
So, does this mean we don’t need to add Mercury retrograde to our (already long) list of anxieties this year? We speak to the astrological experts to find out what the event actually means, and how we can best navigate its effects.
What’s the science behind Mercury retrograde?
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a renowned space scientist, science educator and author of The Sky at Night: Book of the Moon–A Guide to Our Closest Neighbour and the children’s book Dr Maggie’s Grand Tour of the Solar System, explains the science behind Mercury retrograde: “If we look at Mercury, it sits closer to the sun than Earth and its orbit around the sun is much shorter, just 88 days compared with our 365.25. This means that Mercury travels around the sun over four times for every one of our orbits. When Earth and Mercury are on the same side of the sun in their orbits, Mercury appears to move through the sky from west to east. As Mercury overtakes Earth in its inner orbit, it looks as if Mercury has changed direction and is in retrograde. This generally happens about three times a year.”
To put this into perspective: “Imagine we’re sitting on a stationary train,” she continues. “The train on the next platform slowly starts to move forward, but then our train takes off quickly and overtakes it. If we don’t know that our train is moving, what we see is the train next to us move slowly forwards, then level up with us and then apparently move backwards. We see this even though neither train is actually moving backwards. It’s all about the relative positions.”
Every planet in our solar system retrogrades and it’s worth considering that if we were to stand on the surface of Mercury and look back at Earth, Earth would appear to move backwards, too. But, unlike Mars for example, Mercury’s orbit is quicker and so the event occurs more often, making it noteworthy for some people. While there’s a logical astronomical explanation for why Mercury appears to change course, astrologers believe something more significant is at play.
What about Mercury retrograde’s astrological implications?
Susan Miller is arguably one of the world’s most famous astrologers; her website Astrology Zone has 309 million page views a year and 11 million unique users—and that’s not taking into account her phenomenally successful app of the same name. “Mercury retrograde is the only event that affects everybody across the board,” Miller tells Vogue. “However, it does affect Virgo and Gemini more because they are ruled by the planet. When Mercury retrogrades, the conditions are changing, but we can’t yet see the direction things are moving in. The world is in flux during this time.” Hence, the chaos.
Astronomy and astrology may share a similar origin story—both were observed by our early human ancestors thousands of years ago—but the two are now regarded as separate fields. Astronomy refers to the study of the universe beyond our planet; while astrology is the study of how everything beyond Earth impacts us. “Many cultures in the past watched the movement of celestial objects across the night sky,” explains Dr Aderin-Pocock. “As Earth rotates, objects appear to move from west to east, but a few of the objects observed would occasionally move from east to west, apparently backwards in the sky. Initially these were called ‘wandering stars’— celestial objects that didn’t move like the others—but in time, it was discovered that these objects were actually the planets of the solar system orbiting the sun.”
For astrologers like Miller, Mercury’s perceived change of direction can have chaotic consequences for us here on Earth. “Mercury rules all moving parts,” she explains. “You should never buy a computer, or a car or a phone during Mercury’s retrograde because there will likely be a problem with it. Nor should you sign any contracts as you will find that you are missing something and later you will have to renegotiate. I also wouldn’t recommend going on a first date during the retrograde; communication is affected so you may pick the wrong person.”
This is an area that science is not on board with. “There have been many theories to try to rationalise why the apparent backward movement of Mercury would influence people here on Earth,” says Dr Aderin-Pocock. “Some suggest that the gravitational force Mercury exerts on the water in our bodies could be the key. But, scientific calculation shows that walking past a car a few metres away will have a stronger gravitational effect than Mercury which is much, much more massive, but sits 77 million km [48 million miles] away.”
How can you navigate Mercury retrograde?
According to Miller, from an astrological perspective, Mercury is not quite as doom and gloom as we have been led to believe. “Astrology is fun, it shows you possibilities, and thanks to the internet, it is more popular than ever,” she says. “However, this does mean there are a lot of astrologers who perhaps haven’t studied for very long, scaring people unnecessarily. If you have a baby during the retrograde, that’s totally fine. I was born during Mercury retrograde!”
So, if it’s not all misbehaving computers and broken vehicles, what else is there? “Mercury retrograde is a great time to go back; go back and revisit old projects, old acquaintances and colleagues. As humans we like to forge ahead, but Mercury retrograde is the perfect opportunity to stop and reassess.”
That said, it doesn’t hurt to exercise some caution–like double-checking you have your keys and wallet when you leave the house, and ensuring all your work is backed up. Make sure you’re extra vigilant during Mercury retrograde, and it might not be as bad as you think.
Originally published on Vogue.in