Moon: A Brief History

Bernd Brunner
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Werewolves and Wernher von Braun, Stonehenge and the sex lives of sea corals, aboriginal myths, and an Anglican bishop: In his new book,Moon, Bernd Brunner weaves variegated information into an enchanting glimpse of Earth's closest celestial neighbor, whose mere presence inspires us to wonder what might be "out there."

    Going beyond the discoveries of contemporary science, Brunner presents an unusual cultural assessment of our complex relationship with Earth's lifeless, rocky satellite. As well as offering an engaging perspective on such age-old questions as "What would Earth be like without the moon?" Brunner surveys the moon's mythical and religious significance and provokes existential soul-searching through a lunar lens, inquiring, "Forty years ago, the first man put his footprint on the moon. Will we continue to use it as the screen onto which we cast our hopes and fears?"

    Drawing on materials from different cultures and epochs, Brunner walks readers down a moonlit path illuminated by more than seventy-five vintage photographs and illustrations. From scientific discussions of the moon's origins and its "chronobiological" effects on the mating and feeding habits of animals to an illuminating interpretation of Bishop Francis Godwin's 1638 novelThe Man in the Moone, Brunner's ingenious and interdisciplinary explorations recast a familiar object in an entirely original and unforgettable light and will change the way we view the nighttime sky.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16870-9
    Subjects: Astronomy, History of Science & Technology, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xiii)

    The light of the sun is our essential source of energy. Without it, not only would Earth’s temperature drop to an unimaginable level, but a thick crust of ice would soon cover the planet’s surface. Few microorganisms, if any, would survive. If the sun disappeared altogether, our world would even lose its gravitational anchor. The world is simply inconceivable without the sun. But what would the planet be like without the moon? We might assume that the absence of our satellite would affect us less dramatically than the loss of the sun. But the more we recognize how intimately life...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Gazing at the Moon
    (pp. 1-23)

    While the sun is too bright for us to look at it directly, the moon lends itself to gazing and contemplating. Over the course of about one month, the moon makes a perceptible trip through the sky. Its phases are more easily distinguishable than its motion. On the third day after the new moon, its visible surface starts to take the form of a thin semicircle, easily lending to a comparison with a pair of horns or a boomerang. The next night it will be higher above the western horizon than the night before, and not as thin. It also...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Moon of the Mind
    (pp. 25-45)

    Like an ongoing discussion, our understanding of the moon is constantly overlaid by new discoveries and events. Each generation has a collective perception of what the moon is, means, and symbolizes. Any effort to reconstruct this shared field of meaning from a past time reminds us that, as the historians of science Stephen Toulmin and J. Goodfield put it inThe Fabric of the Heavens(1961), we are “confronted not by unanswered questions, but by problems as yet unformulated, by objects and happenings which had not yet been set in order, far less understood.” In other words, there is not...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Charting the Moonscape
    (pp. 47-65)

    We have the ability to imagine places and spaces that don’t even exist, but sometimes reality surpasses the imagination. The discovery of America not only was a complete surprise, it also opened up the world in geographical terms and brought about a complete change in perspective. In the case of the moon the starting point was different. Its existence had long been evident, but the first glimpse of the moon through a telescope—just over one hundred years after Columbus set foot on soil in the New World—triggered a dramatic conceptual shift. No longer a mythic figure, the moon...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Pale Sun of the Night
    (pp. 67-91)

    That the moon shines is irrefutable, but just how bright is it? There is no easy answer, because the intensity of moonlight—measured in lux—varies considerably and is influenced by several factors. During a full moon the luminance is about 25 times as great as at the time of the quarter moon and 250 times as great as on a clear, moonless night. The distance between Earth, moon, and sun, which changes because the terrestrial and lunar orbits are not perfect circles, also has a bearing on the intensity of light. The moon’s lighter lunar highlands reflect much more...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Encounters of a Lunar Kind
    (pp. 93-115)

    We have seen the speculation by scientists about the possibility of life on the moon, and their later confrontation of the reality. Writers of fiction took many more liberties with the facts, but their imaginative moon cultures were not formulated arbitrarily. These literary fantasies are products of particular times and circumstances, sometimes incorporating newly emerging technical insights and possibilities, sometimes reflecting philosophical thought about what a perfect world should look like or how a less perfect world might be construed: the fictional moon became utopia or dystopia, or something in between. Or, as Scott L. Montgomery has expressed it, the...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Lunar Passion in Paris
    (pp. 117-123)

    The European fascination with the moon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was part of a deep obsession with wild and sublime landscapes. Jagged volcanic vistas, the icy regions of the Arctic and Antarctic, and the dry vastness of the deserts attracted scientists and laymen alike, some of whom paid for their curiosity with their lives. All such environments imposed exacting physical limitations on the humans willing to investigate them. As Alain de Botton has put it in his essayThe Art of Travel, “It is as if these landscapes allowed travellers to experience transcendent feelings that they no longer...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Accounts of Genesis
    (pp. 125-135)

    What is the origin of the moon? A simple question, perhaps, but one without a simple answer. A myth among the Native American Seneca tribes claims that a wolf sang the moon into existence. In the Western world, the study of the history of the Earth was, until the early eighteenth century, still dominated by the biblical account of the Creation, and the same account settled the history of the moon. According to Genesis, God “set two great lights in the firmament of heaven, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night.” Just...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT A Riddled Surface
    (pp. 137-161)

    We have seen the various theories scientists have come up with to account for the existence of the moon, but what happened after the moon was born? With no time machine available to us, we have to rely on the measurement of radioactive elements in lunar rock samples to determine age. Predictably, the samples differ in age depending on the exact places they were taken from, but virtually none of this material is younger than 3.6 billion years, at which time a heavy bombardment of meteorites ceased. Since then the moon has remained virtually unchanged, though a relatively steady rain...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Lunar Choreography
    (pp. 163-175)

    “The higher the moon, the higher the clouds, the finer the weather.” “Moon in the north brings cold; moon in the south brings warm and dry.” Much traditional weather lore is based on such correlations. Poised at an uneasy intersection of astronomy and popular cosmology, astrometeorological speculations about the moon’s effects on the weather are particularly persistent. The London pharmacist Luke Howard (1772–1864), who devised the system still used for classifying clouds, maintained an elaborate record of meteorological observations. He saw a correlation between patterns of barometric fluctuations and the moon’s gravitational effect on the atmosphere. Some “lunarists,” in...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Esoteric Practices
    (pp. 177-187)

    If we could travel back in time, we’d arrive at a point when only a fine line separated alchemy, folk medicine, and medical science. The moon figured in all of them. Premodern healing systems are attracting renewed interest today, but two centuries ago or so they were the first choice of much of the populace. The Berlin of the late eighteenth century, for example, was a major center of the Enlightenment, but also the home of a moon doctor, a Mr. Weisleder. By the early 1780s Marcus Herz, one of the most renowned Jewish physicians in the city, decided that...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN Spurious Correspondences
    (pp. 189-199)

    No one can deny the existence of certain atmospheric influences on the human body. Sunlight, the duration and intensity of which directly correspond with the seasons, not only burns us if we get too much of it, it can affect our moods. Thunder and lightning can arouse strong fears and end lives. Extreme changes in atmospheric pressure can cause lungs to collapse. Correlations have been shown between the seasons and the birth and death rates. But does the moon actually influence the physiology of humans? If so, how much?

    A whole body of folklore explores the moon’s influence on various...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE Visions of the Moon
    (pp. 201-227)

    We have seen that mapping the moon began as soon as telescopes provided a closer look. By the middle of the nineteenth century, at the time when Jules Verne was writing his books about lunar travels, moon maps had become more sophisticated and detailed than early ones, but they still failed to create a truly vivid image of the moon. How could anyone give an impression of what it would be like to actually stand on the moon rather than merely to look at it from afar? How could the still invisible and unknown be made visible? Paradoxically, to achieve...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Before and After Apollo
    (pp. 229-249)

    History often rewards great breakthroughs but ignores the preparatory steps that made those achievements possible. The Apollo program, for instance, has been documented in great detail and still receives ample attention, but what of the extraordinary labors that led to that summit? How was flight to the moon realized in practical terms after Jules Verne & Co. designed the blueprints?

    When President John F. Kennedy approved the program soon after taking office, he proclaimed that humans would be on the moon before the close of the 1960s. As a result the technicians of the NASA saw their budget suddenly increased tenfold...

  17. EPILOGUE Moon Melancholia
    (pp. 251-258)

    From humankind’s beginnings, the moon was the mysterious light in the night sky, ascribed sundry magical powers and used to structure time. The telescope changed our view, literally and figuratively. Science asserted the moon’s status as a satellite of the Earth, and imagination drifted to speculation about whether anyone—or anything—might live there. Following the Age of Discovery—when indigenous people of the New World were displaced or killed, game was slaughtered, and forests were razed—there was hardly anywhere left on Earth where a utopian society could plausibly have been settled. The moon offered a relatively likely venue...

  18. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 259-274)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 275-276)
  20. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 277-277)
  21. Index
    (pp. 278-290)