Thursday, 11 July 2013

Looking at the MOON

I struggle to understand the phases and orbits of our MOON - and conversations with my Science teacher husband and my Scientist brother, who both claim knowledge and understanding of moons, planets and space stuff as one of their high interest subjects, just lead to my brain shutting down and I'm soon humming the old nursery rhyme...

I see the moon,    
The moon sees me.  
God bless the moon, 
And God bless me.

I do know the moon is about a quarter the size of the earth, that it takes 27.3 days to orbit the earth and I've also read that it takes 29 days to go through it's 'phases', from full moon to no moon, new moon and full moon again.  Apparently that has something to do with the moons slightly sloppy orbit, so that each time it goes around it takes a little longer and that's as far as my understanding goes.

However, I do enjoy creative stories, origins and interesting history tit-bits and there are even some jokes about the moon.

Q. What was the name of the first satellite to orbit the Earth?
A. The moon.

Starting with a strange, but true story, one that comes along once in a BLUE MOON ...... we all see that the moon is bright white or silver or sometimes yellowish, but not blue. Way back in the 14th century they knew the moon (or moone with a silent e) was not blue. An expression of that time - 'he would argue that the moon was blue' meant the same as our expression - 'she'd say black was white'.  So reference to a blue moon meant it was not so, or could not be.

As very little on this earth stays the same for long, a time came when people did see a blue coloured moon. Viewing the moon, at a certain angle, through a haze of chemicals like sulphur, can make the moon look bluish.  In 1883 the Indonesian volcano Krakatau erupted and the dust in the atmosphere made the moon look blue in many parts of the world for almost two years.  In 1927 a very long dry season in India caused enough dust for a blue moon and in 1951 the northern USA saw a blue moon through the smoke from forest fires in Canada. This does not happen very often and so the meaning of the expression altered to refer to something that happened rarely, or from time to time. 

But even this adaption didn't stay in place forever. Centuries ago people around the world  used different calendars and had different names and dates for the months of the year and it was all a bit of a mess if you were travelling. Some calendars followed the phases of the moon, others were based on movements of the sun. Gradually, due to trade and business, these different calendars were adjusted until most of the world was on the same page calendar wise. 

So, we have the year divided into 12 months, each month roughly 30 - 31 days. But the lunar month of 29 days from full moon full moon, is shorter than our calendar month and so it happens occasionally that a month will have two full moons.  This rare event of the second moon in a calendar month has recently become known as a blue moon.  Apparently it happens about 7 times in every 19 years - my husband explained this is because every 19 years the starting point of the earth's orbit around the sun, and the starting point of the moons orbit around the earth line up and they both begin again.

Q: "Why does the Moon orbit the Earth?"
A: "To get to the other side?"

This step in the naming of this phenomenon only developed in the last 25 - 30 years,  cemented into place by the media (it's a cool story when it happens) and also it became an answer in the trivial pursuit game.  This is exciting as it illustrates so well that we live in living history.

And a modern use for the blue moon - poets, and song writers use it to symbolise sadness and loneliness -  see as the Rodgers and Hart Blue Moon duet below - lots of great versions on YouTube.

Blue Moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own

Blue Moon
You knew just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for

In some areas the moon was such a part of daily life that it stood for the period of time we now call month. The modern honeymoon holiday for newly married couples originates with a custom that began in 4th century Northern Europe.  To start married life on a sweet note, newlyweds drank mead, a drink brewed with honey, every day for the first moon (or month) of their life together - and that was a honeymoon.

A SUPER MOON is another good media story when it appears, and a great opportunity for photographers to show off.  Because the path of the moon's orbit around the earth is an elipse, not a circle there are times when the moon is closer to the earth than it is at other times.  When this closer position happens during a full moon it is called a super moon. People are convinced the moon is huge - but to my eye it's just nearer. 

2013 Super moon over central Australia
We know the moon is made of rock. Astronauts have been to the moon, walked around in the moon dust and brought rocks back to earth so it's difficult for us to understand that at one time people believed the moon was made of something else. We can check back to the 16th century again because that was when the printing press was invented meaning that from then on more copies of printed  works existed and some were kept while before that time the one or two hand made copies were lost of destroyed. We find that from the 16th and 17th centuries there were references to the moon being made of cheese.   

An English poet, John Heywood (1497 - 1580) wrote,  "Ye set circumquaques to make me beleue/ Or thinke, that the moone is made of greene cheese."   (You set circumstances to make me believe or think, that the moon is made of green cheese).  This mocking of the idea that the moon was made of cheese was possibly because some people at the time actually believed it was.   

An ancient folk tale tells of a simple farm boy who sees the reflection of the moon in the water of a pond. Not sure what it is he relates it to something of the same shape that he understands - a wheel of cheese. New, or un-aged cheese was called green cheese.  The story was told over and over and and as so often happens the origin meaning changed to the opposite meaning and up to the 19th century many children actually believed the moon was made of cheese!

Q. What do you get when you take green cheese and divide its circumference by its diameter?
A. Moon pi.

So with everyone looking at the moon over thousands of years it's no surprise that minstrels sang about a MAN IN THE MOON....

The man in the moon 
came down too soon
and asked his way to Norwich;
He went by the south 
and burnt his mouth

while supping cold pease porridge.

Of course this is a bit of nonsense - you can't burn your mouth on cold porridge so it follows that the man in the moon is nonsense too. But, strange creatures that we are this rhyme only added to the belief, at least among children, that there was a man in the moon.

In 1638 an English bishop named Francis Godwin wrote a sci fi book called The Man in the Moone, about a voyage to the moon. The Man in the Moon appeared in ballads and folk stories in many different cultures. This came from shadows on the moon taking on facial features. 

From my own childhood I remember -  
'Hello Mr Moon face, high up in the sky.
I can see you smiling, while in bed I lie'.
But I never actually saw the face in the moon as I grew up in the Southern hemisphere and these old stories come from the old world in the north.  European tradition was to see the figure of an old man on the full moon. He often carried a burden and was accompanied by a dog.

The need to have a visible place of banishment to frighten law breakers could be the reason some Germanic and Roman traditions represent the man in the moon as a thief being punished.  In Chinese mythology the goddess Chang'e is stranded on the moon, with a group of moon rabbits, after drinking a double dose of immortality potion.

The moon has a gravitational pull on the earth and so it affects the wind and the ocean tide. Once again that's the limit of my scientific knowledge.  The moon has been there for a long time so we named it. Our word moon comes from an Old English word, mona.  It was mene in Old German, mano in Old Saxon and Danish. By the 15th century English people were spelling it as moone and then moon.

In Latin the word for moon is Luna and this is still used for things relating to the moon such as the luna calendar.  Luna was also the moon goddess and from her we get the words lunacy and lunatic.  It was believed that the moon affected people and animals, causing madness or illness during the full moon. Science cannot prove this is true but many policemen, nurses and doctors think otherwise. Myths about werewolves or lycanthropes, men who transformed from a man into a wolf under the influence of the full moon, are still part of popular entertainment. 

But whatever you believe the moon is a beautiful thing.

2013 Full moon from east coast Australia
FULL MOON By Walter de la Mare

One night as Dick lay fast asleep,
 Into his drowsy eyes
A great still light began to creep
From out the silent skies.
It was the lovely moon's, for when
He raised his dreamy head,
Her surge of silver filled the pane
And streamed across his bed.
So, for a while, each gazed at each-
Dick and the solemn moon-
Till, climbing slowly on her way,
She vanished, and was gone.

This is a Moon Pie

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