As a student of how mainstream science treats subjects supposedly hovering hopelessly on its fringes, I found Frank McGillion's latest non-fiction book captivating.
At one level, Blinded by Starlight is a straightforward account, from a scientist with long medical experience, of the history of that hybrid of astronomy and astrology that our ancestors termed astronomia and how discoveries about the pineal gland and its regulation of melatonin have identified the influence that this previously mysterious gland exerts on our lives.
But McGillion has taken his account to an even more fascinating level by showing how and why the traditional ideas of the physician-astrologers may very well have a basis in solid scientific fact.
The discoveries with which his book primarily deals concern the pineal gland in the human brain -- the 'third eye' venerated by mystics of east and west. The name is not merely fanciful since the gland actually is light sensitive (and even used for vision by some species). However, in humans its primary function is that of regulating the production of melatonin: the hormone that, amongst many other things, profoundly influences human sexual behaviour and reproduction.
The first clues as to the effects melatonin exerts on human fertility came from a study of Eskimo women which found that menstruation ceased during the long arctic winter. Blind women, too, have been found to be less fertile than sighted women.
Repeated studies concluded that the longer hours of daylight in summer causes a decrease in melatonin production. Since melatonin inhibits fertility in women, the decrease makes women more fertile. More simply, the longer the daylight hours, the more fertile women become.
Further research found that melatonin influences a number of other endocrine glands, such as the thyroid and adrenal glands, and also affects a variety of brain hormones and neurotransmitters.
It was also found to have effects on more general processes such as the overall balance of chemicals in the body, and the function of our body clock.
More surprising is the discovery that some of the effects of melatonin can take years to come about. When melatonin was administered to newborn rats, for instance, it was found to delay the onset of puberty much later in life.
Crucially, however, this effect only took place if the melatonin was administered in a critically short period of days around the time of birth.
It is at this point that the ideas of the physician- astrologers make an appearance. If exposure to melatonin during a critically short period around birth can affect important developmental stages in later life, and if melatonin production is controlled by day length and other cosmological factors, then crucial life developments are indeed determined by the state of the heavens at the time of birth, just as the physician- astrologers claimed. And if this is the case then what other, similar, long range effects might be determined by the time we enter the world?
Another main plank of McGillion's argument is that we now know it isn't only sunlight that affects the pineal gland and hence production of melatonin, many forms of electromagnetic radiation and magnetic fields have similar effects - as indeed may other putative fields that appear to interact with living systems, but have yet to be comprehensively investigated - as in the case of the fertility test that mysteriously stopped working in 1938.
McGillion describes, for example, the work of Professor Michael Persinger at Canada's Laurentian University who has carried out strikingly original investigations into the effects of magnetic fields on the human brain, promising in the treatment of depressive illness and -- even more interesting -- affecting our perception of consensual 'reality'.
And it isn't only in the laboratory with experimental magnetic fields that such effects have been observed. There is now persuasive evidence that the Earth's own geomagnetic field can cause a wide range of phenomena, including increased aggressiveness in some animals. This discovery takes on greater significance when you know that some mainstream scientists believe the planets may influence geomagnetism, and that formal statistical studies have found a correlation in the Twentieth Century between wars and increased geomagnetic activity.
The incidence of seizures and death in animals and humans is also increased during periods of geomagnetic fluctuation. One theory is that this may be partly due to the suppression of the production of melatonin by geomagnetism -- melatonin having a pronounced anticonvulsant action.
It's not just homing pigeons that are sensitive to magnetic fields. The iron compound magnetite is present in many of our body tissues and forms receptors called 'magnetosomes' which detect changes in magnetic field strength. Brain tissues, too, contain magnetite, especially the pineal gland.
A study of water diviners showed that when their heads were shielded, they no longer produced muscular responses to weak magnetic fields; the effect was attributed to magnetosomes in the area of the pineal.
In the light of findings such as these, McGillion says; 'We know the exposure of new born babies to light changes melatonin secretion, which can lead, in turn, to alterations in development. We also know that ambient electromagnetic radiation at the time of birth alters the circulation of melatonin in humans, and that the planets - certainly as the physician-astrologers understood this term - influence this process.'
'So is it possible that the cosmologically controlled radiations which new-borns are exposed to could predetermine their future physical, psychological, and indeed, spiritual, development as our forebears claimed? Some medical and scientific professionals certainly think so.'
It is likely that many more will think so when they've read this highly original and utterly fascinating book.
Richard Milton is author of Alternative Science....