Sunday, May 6, 2012

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Supermoon

The moon: something that's been there for as long as we can remember, our planetary friend, our first clue that the universe beyond Earth wasn't just heavenly perfection - now available with footprints and spent Apollo Program descent stages. Last night, its full phase matched up with an uncharacteristically clear Lower Mainland sky, so I took another look at it from my window. I found that, as usual, it is a spherical world that can appear grey or golden depending on the time of day, appearing approximately the same size as a dime held six feet away from your eye.

It was only very recently that I learned people were, for one reason or another, really talking about last night's moon - that it was in fact some kind of supermoon; the real unusual thing, to me, was that the media was actually acknowledging it. Ordinary people who don't live in the future tend not to pay all that much attention to happenings on the other side of the sky. The last time I can remember an astronomical event actually getting newspaper space involved the close approach of Mars about ten years ago, which resulted in... an imperceptibly larger point of light in the sky. Much like last night, when the moon's "supermoon" phase coinciding with its periapsis resulted in an imperceptibly larger moon.

Most of the news articles in the immediate runup to the night were fairly straightforward "go and see the supermoon" pieces. (Step 1: look at the moon.) Amidst those, however, a couple caught my eye. The Toronto Star asked whether it would "make us crazy," and the Tampa Bay Times recognized that some people were exaggerating the effects, and that earthquakes were "unlikely."

Really. The media had to step up and specifically tell people that Earth's internal geological processes weren't going to be affected by a full moon at periapsis. What that tells me is simple - we may be living in the twenty-first century, but there are plenty of people still hewing to magical thinking that would have been common in the eleventh.

Moon. Moon! Mooooooooon. In case you didn't already know what it looks like.

I can understand why some people can believe that the moon can have such wide-ranging effects on Earth. For one, it does; the influence of the moon's gravity, a piddling 0.16 g as it is, affects the tides. For an ordinary person, it's not necessarily a huge leap of logic to conclude that if the moon can affect one part of Earth, it can affect another. It's completely wrong logic, mind you, but it is not crazy moon-man logic. The only problem is that earthquakes are the result of internal geological processes; for the moon to have an influence on them it would have to be a far more coarse manner, such as the moon actually impacting Earth. As for the Star's commentary, while the supermoon didn't make people crazy, some people probably believed crazy things would happen as a result of the supermoon... so maybe it kind of did.

The way I figure it, it's this - the moon is big, the moon is visible, and the moon is recognizable. It's easy for humans to read danger into something familiar, something that can be seen by anyone. For the reptile brain, there's no "subtle threat" about the moon. It's something huge that stays up in the sky as if by magic, but who's to say that, if the people upset the gods, it won't descend to Earth and crush them like a hammer of divine fury? It's big. Even though we have a steadily increasing knowledge of it, have even visited it, for a lot of people it's still just a great big unknown - and the unknown can be dangerous.

Personally, I marked the supermoon by crashing landers into the Mun in Kerbal Space Program. The sacrifices of those brave kerbals will not have been in vain...

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