The first image of Mercury obtained from orbit photographed by the Messenger. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

At 4:48 p.m. Wednesday, the planet Mercury will go into retrograde. This means — from our vantage point here on Earth — that Mercury will appear to move backward in the sky. (This is an optical illusion, of course; planets can’t actually reverse their orbits around the sun. Mercury orbits at a slower pace than Earth, so when we lap it, it’s much like what we experience when passing a slower moving car on the highway.)

But it also means — according to believers — that pandemonium will ensue.

“The best advice I can give you,” says astrologer Angela Nicastro, “is, ‘Stop and stand still.’ ”

According to Nicastro, a New Jersey-based astrologer who has been practicing for 30 years, Mercury’s purview goes beyond world affairs: This is a time when we will see computer and telephone malfunctions, traffic delays and road rage. There will be an increase in crime and a worsening of already erratic weather patterns. Relationships will be strained, new projects will be tough to get started and we might find ourselves confronted by old, unresolved problems.

“This is the time to take a deeper look internally,” says Nicastro. “Don’t expect things to move forward easily. Don’t start something new. Don’t sign contracts. Don’t buy a car. This is a good time to dwell on the details” — clean your closets — “and try something creative” — like dancing or painting.

“And do your best to control your temper,” advises Nicastro.

One of the most famous blunders blamed on “Mercury in retrograde” is the 2000 presidential face-off between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The day before the election, a well-known astrologer, Susan Miller, declared on television that long days of uncertainty and recounting lay ahead for the country. Indeed, her prediction fell in line with the dangling chad debacle that followed the election in Florida.

Mercury is the planet that is said to control communication and technology.

“As above, so below,” is how Melissa Abell, an advertising executive at The Washington Post who moonlights as an astrologer, explains it. In other words, if Mercury is going backward (or appears that way), life on Earth will appear stalled and “wacky” as well.

Making matters worse, says Abell, is the fact that Mercury is not only in retrograde until April 23, but it is also — and bear with me here — in the Aries sign of the zodiac, which represents war, aggression and self-absorption.

“There’s this feeling of utter meltdown in the world,” Abell says.

But there’s the rub. The impact of Mercury in retrograde and in Aries boils down to a “feeling” of a downward spiral. And, as any scientist will tell you, a feeling just isn’t enough to suggest correlation.

“Sorry, [Mercury in retrograde has] no such effect,” says Robert Stencel, a professor of astronomy at the University of Denver. “Mercury has a 90-day orbit and that means we have retrograde every season, every year.”

Yes, every year. In fact, there are two more retrograde periods coming up this year, from Aug. 2 to 26 and Nov. 23 to Dec. 13. All in all, we spend about 11 weeks out of every year allegedly battling the effects of Mercury in retrograde.

“If there were any connection,” Stencel continues, “humans would have noticed.” (Stencel notes that the bigger Mercury-related news of the day is that NASA released new views of Mercury’s surface this morning.)

Whether you believe that Mercury’s place in the sky truly has an impact on day-to-day life on earth or just want to blame a tiny planet 138 million miles away for your bad luck, Abell has some parting advice that’s valuable any time of year.

“A good mantra is ‘stand down.’ You’re gonna want to kill people. But calmness is pervasive, so spread it around.”

Got any Mercury in retrograde disasters? Post your comments here.

Mercury retrograde ends