Monday, March 4, 2024

Books: "Our Moon" By Rebecca Boyle


Our Moon: How Earth's Celestial Companion Transformed the Planet, Guided Evolution, and Made Us Who We Are

By Rebecca Boyle

Random House; hardcover, 336 pages; $28.99

Rebecca Boyle is a columnist at Atlas Obscura and a contributor to Scientific American, Quanta Magazine, The Atlantic, the New York Times, Popular Science, and Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine. She is a member of the group science blog The Last Word on Nothing. Boyle was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been honored with numerous writing awards, and she is a former Space Camp attendee and lifelong Moon enthusiast.

In the riveting new book, Our Moon: How Earth's Celestial Companion Transformed the Planet, Guided Evolution, and Made Us Who We Are, Boyle will let you discover more about the moon, and its effect on Earth, than you ever imagined. She reveals the intimate role that our 4.51 billion-year-old companion has played in our biological and cultural evolution.

Earth's orbit was stabilized by our Moon's gravity, and its climate was shaped by how the Moon drew nutrients to the surface of the primordial ocean, where they fostered the evolution of complex life. 

To this day, the Moon continues to influence how animals migrate and reproduce, the movement of plants, and it's possible that it influences the flow of the very blood in our veins.

The Sun helped prehistoric hunters and gatherers mark daily time, but it was early civilizations that used the Moon's phases to count months and years, allowing them to plan farther ahead. Mesopotamian priests recorded the Moon's position in order to make predictions, and that led to the creation of the earliest known empirical, Scientific observations. Boyle chronicles ancient astronomers and major figures of the scientific revolution, including Johannes Kepler and his influential lunar science fiction. 

The thing that changed our relationship with the Moon is an event a lot of people remember, or certainly know well, when Apollo astronauts landed on it in 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first human beings to experience selenic discomfort, as moon dust covered their spacesuits and boots, and a lot of the inside of their Eagle lander, as well. Astronauts on later missions noticed that the dust scratched  their sun visors and damaged the seals on the rock boxes they brought home. Moon dust, which is all pulverized rock, caused a form of hay fever, making astronauts' eyes watery and itchy and their throats scratchy and sore. By comparison, Earth dust is made of organic material.

Our Moon comes at a time when space exploration is in the news again, and our relationship with the Moon is about to enter a new phase, as governments and private enterprise aim to profit from its resources. 

In this excerpt, Boyle writes of the essence of this work, "The Moon is different.

It is like nowhere on Earth, which is a watery bubble improbably bursting with life in a universe of emptiness. The Moon is barren and has been throughout the four-and-a-half-billion-year eternity of its companionship with this planet. The moon is silent. It plays host to no cricket chorus, coyote calls, or night wind sailing through pines. It is dry, at least on the outside. There are no waves lapping on shores, no soft rains, no snow. It is a crater-pocked wasteland that smells of doused firecrackers. The Moon is scorching hot during its long day, and freezing cold during its long night.

The lunar landscape is grayscale, but flecked with shades of tan, chocolate, beach sand, chalk, gold, spicy-mustard ochre, and, in the words of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, a 'cherry rose' hue.

Sunlight of the airless Moon plays tricks on human eyesight, warping a moonwalker's sense of crater depths and hillside angles, making tiny slopes look like vertiginous peaks. All is monotony. There is no blue, and there is no green. No sunlight scatters through a watery atmosphere. No lichens splotch the Moon's rocks. No bacteria grow in its dirt to help plants flourish. Certainly, there are no birds overhead, ants underfoot, or another other kind of animal anywhere. On the Moon there is nothing and no one. Until the Apollo landings, no creatures ever looked up at the Moon's black sky and wondered about their place in it all. No one ever stared up at the crescent Earth and thought about visiting. There is no culture, except the one we brought.

The Moon says nothing for itself, but it says plenty about us. We project our dreams and our fervor onto its mottled surface and it serves as a mirror, both figruratively and literally. It reflects sunlight and even Earth's own light, ashen earthshine, back to us. We can see this phenomenon when the Moon is a crescent, and yet its full disk is just barely perceptible. The Moon is Earth in inverse, a desolate rock whose scars whisper of our world's violent past and underscore its riotous gardens of color and life. The Moon contains only what we imagine it to contain. It harbors only what we berth in its seas.

SINCE THE BEGINNING of time, the Moon has controlled life on Earth and shepherded the human mind through a spectacular journey of thought, wonder, power, knowledge, and myth. But this frenzied, multifarious, Earthly history disguises the truth of the Moon. As vivid and lively as our history with it has been, the Moon itself is quiet, barren, and still.

This was not always the case: When the Moon was young, it was livid with energy and heat, a magnetic field, oceans of lava, and maybe an active crust like the one that warps and wrinkles the face of our world. But no one was around for this lively phase. The only Moon we have ever known is the spectral one in our sky, the two-dimensional one, the cold and silent one. 

Nothing happens there, except the occasional arrival of an asteroid or the briefly violent puff of a crashed or landed spacecraft. Nothing looks up, nothing breathes, nothing hopes.

When Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969, he described his surroundings as 'magnificent desolation,' an interpretation that has yet to be bested. It's difficult to liken the Moon to anywhere familiar, because anywhere familiar is a place on Earth.

Even from orbit, Earth looks and feels like home. Astronauts report that staring down on out planet is one of the most exhilarating things about being in space. We belong here. Earth's razor-thin atmosphere, cloud tendrils, green-carpeted continents, and deep ocean blues beckon us. Not so for the Moon, according to Collins, who orbited it alone in his spacecraft but did not walk on it. There is no comfort to the 'withered, sun-seared peach pit out my window,' he wrote in his memoir, Carrying the Fire. 'Its invitation is monotonous and meant for geologists only.'

Humans are sensory beings, and the Moon is a place devoid of any familiar sensory experience. If you were to visit, you might experience conflicting feelings of deprivation and overwhelm. Every time you went outside - in a spacesuit, of course - and every time you went back indoors and took off your gear, the Moon would bowl you over. You would feel lonely, hot, freezing, terrified, ecstatic, superhuman, and tiny, in a matter of moments or maybe all at once. Its topography, its innards, its atmosphere - everything about the Moon is different."

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