As an historian of science, I've spent a lot of time observing the moon -- at least observing the historical traces of where the moon's path has intersected with the human quest to understand nature, the universe, and the meaning of (scientific) life. I've actually never seen the moon through a telescope, as so many scientific investigators have, down through the years since the time of Galileo (that's his work to the left: one of his drawings of his telescopic moon from the Sidereus Nuncius -- The Starry Messenger -- of 1610). Like a lot of moderns, I know the moon from the occasional naked eye glance up to the heavens when I'm out and about and the night is clear, or from the NASA photographs that became part of the collective consciousness for those of us growing up in the sixties.
I'd always liked the idea of star-gazing through a telescope, but growing up in a working-class family, the likelihood of owning a telescope was out of the realm of what was possible. When I became older and on my own, such a thing still seemed like an extravagance, and, really, weren't all those professional pictures in magazines and embedded within television science documentaries going to be vastly better than anything I could manage on my own with a telescope, rendering my own possible efforts redundant? Still, I always had a small, nagging feeling that I was missing out on something important that existed outside of a world of daily routines that kept my focus earth-bound, with little time to just sit back and scan the sky. (I'd heard that binoculars had come down in price and up in power in a way that allowed one to view the moon as Galileo had, but I never got around to investigating that in more detail -- if there had been the kind of web we have today to plug into in the 1970s or early eighties I would have found a lot of advice in seconds and it might have seemed do-able. Take a look here or here or here, for example. Or, if I had encountered the evangelism of sidewalk astronomy, who knows?)
So most of my moon-gazing these days takes place within the pages of books -- the History of Science Collections here at the University of Oklahoma has an astonishing collection of rare books, and I've had the opportunity to pore over the original copy of that Sidereus Nuncius pictured above more than a dozen times in the course of teaching students, and we'll be pulling some other Renaissance rarities this week in another visit for the science and popular culture class, to accompany our reading of Scott Montgomery's The Moon and the Western Imagination. If you want a sense of what we'll be up to, take a look at this wonderful online exhibition from the Linda Hall Library, The Face of the Moon: From Galileo to Apollo.
But before getting strapped into the way-back machine during our Collections visit, I thought I would take a tour around the web and see what might turn up, striking off on a trail that starts from Montgomery's book, but then which rapidly branched off to other strange and fascinating links:
- Montgomery makes the startling claim that the first naturalistic drawings of the moon don't come from the sketchpad of Leonardo da Vinci circa the very early 1500s, or the telescopic observations of Thomas Harriot or Galileo, but are displayed in the artist Jan van Eyck's oil paintings, such as his Crucifixion from the 1420s.
- A discussion of the phenomenon of "strange moonlight", via NASA, explaining, for example, why you can't read by moonlight.
- Moving from the visual to the literary, here's a collection of moon poetry.
- Where did that story about the moon and green cheese come from anyway? Try the Straight Dope.
- The "Earth and Moon Viewer" gives you an incredible number of ways to view the moon.
- And examples of "good moons rising" (and bad ones) from children's picture books -- see how the classic story, Good Night, Moon does a superlative job of portraying the moon through the window as you page through it. This is from a site with an inventive educational twist that is absorbing in itself: Paper Plate Education, whose motto is "Serving the universe on a paper plate." What a concept!
For more: Here's a collection of paragraphs from an assignment I gave where each member of the class spent some time looking at the night sky and reported back what thoughts occurred to them: funny, lyrical, profound stuff. And here's a previous blog post that touches on the idea of the Apollo landing being a hoax and discusses the myths about the Challenger explosion.
Image: The Galileo drawing of the moon is courtesy of the History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries; copyright the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. The thumbnail is from http://hsci.cas.ou.edu/images/jpg-100dpi-5in/17thCentury/Galileo/1610/Galileo-1610-9v.jpg.