Thursday, May 15, 2008

Top Ten Moon Myths - Part 2

Last month, I gave you my picks for Numbers 10 through 6 of the top ten moon myths of all time. This week, to celebrate the Full Moon on Monday (Moon Day), May 19, let’s finish up the list with my selections for Numbers 5 through 1.

5) Plant growth is influenced by moon phases. The practice of lunar gardening or lunar agriculture--planting and harvesting according to moon phases--is ancient. Many cultures around the world have subscribed to it, and it’s a mainstay of folkloric tradition. A surprising number of modern folks practice it too; references can even be found in modern farmer’s almanacs.

The practice hinges on the belief that the Moon’s gravitational force exerts an influence on the flow of moisture in soil and plants. Lunar gardeners believe, for example, that crops producing their yield above ground should be planted during the waxing (growing) moon. The time to plant root crops is during the waning (shrinking) moon. However, no planting should be done on the New Moon or Full Moon--or, strangely, on any Sunday.

There is no body of scientific data that supports the claims of the lunar gardeners. At some point in prehistory, the use of the lunar calendar as a planting calendar--a simple tool to ensure crops went in at the right time--may have evolved into a belief system linking the Moon to agricultural success. And we humans do cling tenaciously to our belief systems, don’t we?

4) The Apollo moon landings were a hoax. Let’s see: the testimony of the astronauts who went there, the hundreds of pounds of unique moon rocks that have been examined by scientists around the world (as well as displayed in museums), the voluminous number of archived mission photographs, in other words, overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Most of the ‘hoax evidence’ claims are skillfully debunked here.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Image source: NASA

3) There is a link between the Full Moon and an increase in mentally disturbed behavior, criminal activity, women going into labor, etc. Notwithstanding that the word lunatic comes from the Latin word for moon, numerous studies have found no definitive link between mental hospital admissions and the Full Moon. There have been many studies conducted on the possible link between the Full Moon and crime, with no clear pattern emerging. Some have postulated that the Full Moon may simply create the optimum lighting condition for nighttime mischief-making, rather than influence behavior. Finally, no link supported by scientific studies has been found between the Full Moon (or any moon phase) and birthrates.
Anecdotal evidence is plentiful and proliferative, but perception is most assuredly not the same thing as objective analysis of reliable data (what we like to call “science”).

2) We can see the American flag on the Moon’s surface from Earth. I hear it all the time at star parties when the Moon is out: “Show me the flag on the Moon!” Some folks actually get incensed when I explain to them that I can’t: “But you just showed me a galaxy millions of light years away. Why can’t you show me the flag?!”

I’m sure the conspiracy theorists would say: “Aha. We can’t see it because it was never there.” But the truth is the smallest feature we can see on the Moon--using even the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope--is about 300 feet across. We would need an immensely large telescope to possess the light-gathering capability that is needed to see such a small, dim object like a flag--one that doesn’t produce light, but only reflects it. A galaxy, on the other hand, although tremendously more distant, is gargantuan compared to a flag. In addition, it emits the collective light of several hundred billion stars.

And the number one moon myth of all time:

1) The Moon is made of green cheese. One of the earliest references to a cheesy moon has been attributed to the 16th century French satirist Francois Rabelais: “Thought the moon was made of green cheese.” Green, in his time, meant new, non-aged cheese, and--clever writer that he was--he cast the Moon's dark maria or seas (basalt-filled craters) as the bubbles in a wheel of cheese. In a different time and place, however, the green was misinterpreted as the color, and so began the charming--albeit silly--practice of befuddling small children by telling them the moon is made of green (sounds pretty yucky) cheese.

The 17th century clergyman John Wilkins wrote: “You may as soon persuade some country peasants that the Moon is made of green cheese…as that 'tis bigger than his cart wheel.” Apparently, 17th century country bumpkins were not to be hoaxed by tales of lunar edibleness, even if they couldn't be convinced of lunar immenseness.

Image source: NASA