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Nominee for Featured Selection, Lunatic Book Club:
Exploring Our Relationship With the Lonely Moon
By CORNELIA DEAN
Published: December 27, 2010
The Moon is Earth’s only satellite, a quarter of its size, moving around our home planet in cold and lifeless isolation, in an orbit that increases an inch and a half a year.
“Moon: A Brief History” is filled with lunar factoids like these: how the Moon formed four and a half billion years ago, probably when a Mars-size body collided with Earth and threw off a disk of material that eventually coalesced into an orbital partner; how what we call the dark side is not actually dark; and how over the centuries people invented telescopes and other instruments to view the Moon, and what they saw.
But the book, and its wide variety of illustrations from classical texts, science fiction and other sources, describes not just the history of the celestial body but the ways it inspired the human imagination to take flight, fueled, as Proust put it, by “the ancient unalterable splendor of a Moon cruelly and mysteriously serene.”
The author, Bernd Brunner, is a Berlin-based writer, one of whose previous books, “Bears,” is a history of human-ursine relations. As with the bear, what fascinates him here is the relationship between people and his subject. So we learn, for example, that old clocks show the phases of the Moon as well as the time because before electricity people relied on moonlight to travel in the evening. And that people who don’t keep track of the Moon’s influence on tides can get into trouble, as Julius Caesar did when Roman ignorance of English tides left boats high and dry in the Roman invasion of Britain.
We also learn that Chukchi shamans in Siberia sought to achieve magical powers by exposing themselves naked to moonlight, and among the Aztecs, the dark of the Moon was thought to bring death.
In other cultures the Moon, that most obviously changeable of celestial objects, became a symbol of transience and rebirth. In some societies, the Moon is thought to have the power to make people crazy — lunatic, loony or moonstruck — or induce sleepwalking, once known as “lunatism.”
Every faith and culture, it seems, kept an eye on the Moon, setting Passover, Easter, Ramadan, Tet and other observances according to the lunar calendar. The Buddha was supposed to have achieved enlightenment by the light of the full Moon, and as belief in a Moon goddess faded with the advent of Christianity, Mr. Brunner tells us, Mary became associated with the Moon.
By the 17th century, people were imagining trips to the Moon and encounters with lunar inhabitants who, Mr. Brunner tells us, “are hardly ever imagined as inferior, ill-natured or threatening.” Perhaps the most famous work in the genre is Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” which was published in Paris in 1865, and which accurately predicted not only that people from the United States would be the first to set foot on the Moon but also, among other details, that the craft carrying them would be launched from Florida, splash down in the Pacific and be rescued by the United States Navy. NASA’s Apollo program “helped make Verne popular again,” Mr. Brunner writes.
Today lunar exploration is on the back burner, although India sent a spacecraft, Chandrayaan-1, to the Moon in 2008. The craft carried a verse from the Rig Veda, a collection of sacred texts: