Moon Madness

(Originally published in Camping Life Magazine)

I have no idea where I first heard it, probably some B-movie on late-night TV, but I've had this phrase in my head as long as I can remember: "Consider the Moon." Except it sounds more like, "KAHN-si-dah... (long pause, then, dramatically) ...the MOON!" Sort of ominous, sort of foreboding, it's one of those things that you just love saying, so I do, each and every time I see a full Moon. It makes my friends and family crazy.

The thing is, hardly anybody really does consider the Moon, even though it's the most obvious thing in the sky except for the sun. Most every night, there's the Moon, just hanging there, so familiar we tend to not even notice it while we peer into the sky hoping to see a shooting star or a newly discovered comet. Our mistake. So let's take a few minutes this month to give the Moon its due.

First off, the Moon isn't quite what it seems. For one thing, it's not a sphere, although it looks that way to us. In reality, the Moon is sort of egg-shaped, but since the smaller end is pointed toward the earth, we can't really see that from our vantage point. (To illustrate this, take an egg out of the fridge and point the small end at your face. It'll look perfectly round.) This elongation is more or less a small-scale mirror image of the Moon's tidal effect on the earth.

The Moon's tidal effect, by the way, is much stronger than you may realize. While we're all familiar with the way the oceans are affected by the Moon's gravitational pull, even the rock and soil beneath our feet is bent out of shape by the Moon's passing. In fact, "soil tides" of as much as 30 centimeters have been recorded.

In addition to the tides, the Moon actually affects time as we know it. Because of the Moon's size (with a diameter of 3476 kilometers, it's actually big enough for some scientists to consider it a terrestrial "planet" like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) and mass, and its proximity to earth (only 384,400 kilometers from Earth), the Moon exerts enough drag on the Earth to slow our home planet's rotation by about 1.5 milliseconds per century. Conversely, the Moon is picking up enough rotational energy from us to move away from Earth at about 3.8 centimeters per year.

Of course, the Moon's psychological effects on us humans is every bit as important as its physical effects, and the two do seem to overlap. Think about it - when things start going crazy, don't you almost automatically think, "must be a full Moon"? There's no real proof that the Moon, when full, really does make us do crazy things, but the phenomena of increased emergency room visits and police calls during the full Moon are well documented. And what about werewolves? Or vampires? Don't they come out when the Moon is full and the fog hangs heavy on the moors?

Other than comets, which are irregular sights at best, there is no heavenly event more fraught with meaning than the full Moon, probably because it so clearly marks the beginning and/or end of the Moon's magically regular cycles. Isaac Asimov theorized that these cycles were actually the incentive for early humans to begin counting and marking time and season. It wouldn't have taken long, Asimov wrote, for humans to notice and start trying to record and anticipate the waxing and waning of the Moon, nor for them to soon notice that 12 such cycles coincide almost exactly with the four seasons of an Earth year. (Incidentally, the seasons are what determine a "Blue Moon." The fourth full Moon in a season is the "Blue Moon," not the second full Moon in a month.) The cycles also gave early farmers indications of when to plant and when to harvest. Throw in the fact that every so often, and only if and when the Moon was full, an eclipse would temporarily erase the Moon from the sky, and it becomes easy to see how and why the Moon played an enormous role in the lives and thinking of humans since the dawn of intelligence.

The great thing about the Moon, though, is that as we learn more and more about it, the Moon's reality becomes even more interesting than its mythology, and its little-known reality is more interesting yet. For instance, most everyone knows that on Sunday, July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon. But did you know that aside from the grainy TV footage of his first tentative steps, there are no photos of Armstrong on the lunar surface? It's true - all the famous photos from Apollo 11's Moonwalks are pictures of Buzz Aldrin; Armstrong was the photographer. And while you may know that Alan Shepard was the only man ever to hit a golf shot on the Moon, did you know he used a 6-iron he'd smuggled aboard against NASA regulations? Or that he was only able to swing with one arm because of his bulky space suit? All true, as is the fact that every lunar footprint ever made by astronauts is still there because there is no wind on the Moon to blow the prints away.

With all that in mind, go take another look at the Moon. Actually, you should take a couple of looks. While the full Moon is the most impressive face, and you can (and should) definitely get a great view of many of the Moon's features, you'll be able to get a better sense of how rough and mountainous the lunar landscape is if you look up during the first or last quarter. Here's the deal - take a pair of binoculars or a telescope and look not at the brightly lit section, but at the dividing line between light and dark. This way you'll be able to see the long shadows thrown by the Moon's mountains and even start to get a sense of the depth of some of the craters. Keep watching and over the course of a few nights, you'll even see the shadows getting longer and longer (during a waning Moon; if the Moon is waxing, the shadows will get progressively shorter). Before you know it, you, too, will be looking up and saying, to no one in particular, "consider the Moon."


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