||Truly inspiring, and thoroughly
There is a lot of science in this book,
but very little of it is technical. The book is conversational, which
makes it easy to read, though it also detracts from a "professional"
style. I am not fond of "I" or "you" in a non-fiction work, or "remember
that I said...", "one would think...", either. However, that is a minor
complaint in a book so enjoyable.
The book is not just a history of the
Moon, although the author does an amazing job of bringing the Moon into
the context of the history of science. I took a history and philosophy
of science course as an undergraduate, and I gained no insight from it.
This author, however, does an amazing job of bringing Aristotle and
other philosophers down to my level.
The early chapters describe not only
how the ancient philosophers viewed the Moon and the heavens, but also
the uses to which they put the Moon, as a timekeeper and navigation
device, for example. To some extent, we still use the Moon, but very few
of us actually look into the sky to see what it looks like.
I find it amazing how much the ancients
knew about the Moon and solar system. So much of that knowledge was lost
in the Western world in medieval times. We think the ancients believed
that the world was flat, but that is not so. In the time of Columbus,
the public might have thought that, but not a thousand years earlier, especially in the centers of learning. The Catholic church
maintained that Earth was the center of the Universe, but some of the
ancients reasoned otherwise. How advanced would we be now if the Roman
Empire had not collapsed?
The chapters on the European
renaissance could have been very dry, giving us the information that the
scientists of the day discovered, as in textbooks or other science
books. In the author's biography, he mentions that he has taken a course
on effective communication, and it shows. We get so much detail about
Galileo's observations and his observation technique, for example. The
author is either well versed in the culture of the day and the people
involved, or he can pull the narrative thread out of dry history books.
The style implies that he may have even read the original works!
For a history of science and scientific
discoveries, this is a terrific book to gain insights, not only to the
events, but to the people involved in those events.
The scientific facts, when encountering
the various Lunar theories, are presented in a very straightforward and
understandable way. Analogies are used when appropriate, and
black-and-white sketches also help illustrate some points. Still, a
couple of points could be made more clear. "The sun slows the Moon's
revolution down by roughly one hour per month" implies that the Moon's
orbit is slowing down so quickly that in two years, we could add another
day to the lunar cycle! Fortunately, the next sentence clarifies it, but
not enough: the orbit is slower by one day a month compared to the case
where the sun is not influencing it.
The author also glosses over the reason
that we have two tidal bulges instead of one. You would think, as I did
until I thought about it, that Earth should have one bulge, just slightly
ahead of the Moon. What is the reason for the other? In fact, our planet
is stretched into an egg or football shape. It is not the Moon pulling a bulge out
of our planet, like a swollen bump on the head (which is how I always
thought of it) -the whole planet is stretched by the tides. We could
think of it another way in terms of gravitation: the Moon pulls the near
side more than the center, but it also pulls the center more than the
far side. Thus two bulges are created.
On a more technical note, the author
uses "degrees Kelvin" instead of the scientifically correct "Kelvins",
but I suppose the former is easier for the general public to understand.
When I think of how far we have come in
scientific knowledge in the last millennia, it is truly beyond
comprehension. But even in the last fifty years, astronomy and
scientific theories have progressed far more than I realized. What we
know about the Moon now is taken for granted. But there were a lot of
theories and bad assumptions (like thinking that no new science could
come out of the Moon) that show us how much we really learned from the
The three theories of Lunar formation
are all interesting, and all have a human element that the author
explores successfully. Reading again about Gene Shoemaker reminds me of
how much he is missed. How much more would he have discovered; how many
more theories would he have put forth? The funny thing about all of
these theories about the origin of the Moon is that they are all wrong!
The Big Splat itself began to take form
just before the Apollo missions, but didn't actually become an accepted
theory until ten years after them. It is surprising that the most recent
sections of the book, which lead almost to the year it was published,
are just as fascinating as the ancient ones, even though they don't have
the benefit of so many years of hindsight, debate and analysis. There
are still uncertainties, and no guarantee that the Big Splat is the
correct theory, though it fits the facts better than anything anybody
else has come up with.
The earlier stories seem more romantic,
and easily accessible, because we can compare them to what we know now.
Science is vastly different than it was thousands of years ago, and is
much more complicated, with more people doing science than ever.
And in an age where it seems that fewer
and fewer people can write an interesting technical note, or describe
technical stuff in a way that is easy to understand, this book is a
wonderful opportunity. It is also so inspiring to be reminded of how
such brilliant people form the back bone of discovery that holds our
world together today. Can the story of genius bring out the genius in
all of us? We can only hope.