Thursday, March 20, 2008

Man in the Moon

Have you ever seen the Man in the Moon? The Woman in the Moon? The Rabbit in the Moon? They are there, if you can muster a bit of imagination and whimsy.

I've read somewhere that we Earthlings have a strong impulse to personify the universe. Perhaps our need to see galloping horses, ice cream cones, and the profile of our Aunt Hazel in the clouds is the same as our need to recognize facial features on a lifeless chunk of rock a quarter of a million miles away.

Seeing figures on the Moon has been a common practice in many cultures throughout history. These figures are examples of pareidolia (pronounced pear eye DOH lee uh), the human practice of attributing patterns or meaning to random audio or visual events. Other examples of pareidolia are the “Face on Mars” and the “Jesus Tortilla.”

Full Moon is considered the worst time to look at the Moon’s features through binoculars or a telescope, because surface shadows are at a minimum. It is the play of sunlight and shadow on the Moon’s battered topography of craters, ridges, and valleys that brings those features into high relief and makes them satisfying to observe.

However, Full Moon and a few days on either side is a great time to look for pareidolia. Full Moon occurs on Friday, March 21, so let’s catch a little full moon fever, shall we?

1) The Full Moon is in the sky all night. It rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. You could also say that, during Full Moon, the moon is at opposition. This means it is directly opposite the Sun with respect to Earth’s position, with Earth in the middle. After the 21st, the Moon will rise after sunset, progressively later each night. In addition, the illuminated area on the Moon’s face will wane (shrink) a little more each night.

Clockwise from top left:
Full Moon, Woman, Rabbit, Man in the Moon
Image from Wikipedia

2) Maria, the dark circular splotches on the Moon, are critical components of the Moon’s pareidolia. Maria (pronounced MAH ree yuh) is the Latin word for seas. The singular of the word is mare (pronounced MAH ray). A mare is a crater that filled with lava that afterwards cooled and solidified into basalt. These expanses of basalt account for the smooth, dark appearance of the Moon’s maria, which are hundreds of miles in diameter.

The Moon’s craters are scars from its youth, when it was bombarded by meteorites (rocky space debris that impacts another body). The Earth’s atmosphere protects our planet from meteorites--the friction created on entry vaporizes them so we see them as meteors, aka shooting stars. However, the Moon has no atmosphere, so it took quite a pummeling.

The ‘seas’ and some other lunar surface features bear romantic names. Many were named by Giovanni Riccioli, an Italian Jesuit who published a lunar map in 1651.

3) Using the image above, try to spot the eyes, nose, and mouth of the Man in the Moon. The figure's eyes are the Sea of Showers (Latin name: Mare Imbrium) and the Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis). The nose is the Bay of Tides (Sinus Aestuum). Its gaping mouth is composed of the Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium) and the Sea that Has Become Known (Mare Cognitum). Note that the Moon’s left eye, the Sea of Tranquility, is the site of the first manned Moon landing in 1969.

4) Now try to spot the Woman in the Moon. Seeing a woman’s face on the moon links us to a widespread cultural tradition. The ancient Greek goddesses Selene and Artemis were both associated with the Moon. The Chinese goddess Chang’e lived on the Moon after she swallowed too much elixir of immortality. One of the two prominent deities of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania is the moon goddess Olapa. There are many more examples worldwide of religious, mythological, and culturally symbolic female figures linked with the Moon.

5) Can you snare the Rabbit in the Moon? There are many allusions in world folklore to a Moon-rabbit connection, although the origin of this association is unclear. A number of Asian and African cultures link the Moon with a rabbit or hare. A Hindu word for the Moon means marked with the hare. Could it be as simple as this: the rabbit is a widespread species, its ears give it an immediately recognizable form, and many people can easily imagine the silhouette of a rabbit in the Moon’s markings? You decide.

6) Back in the old U.S. of A., March’s Full Moon is called Worm Moon by the Algonquins, Wind Strong Moon by the Taos Pueblo Indians, and Moon when the Juice Drips from the Trees by the Delaware Indians.

All signs of spring, to be sure. Happy Equinox.