Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Index

THE BIG SPLAT

By Dana Mackenzie (2003, John Wiley & Sons)

The story of how our moon came to be, from ancient legends and philosophy to modern theories.

 

 

Read July 27th to August 1st, 2005  
    Truly inspiring, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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 Apollo missions.

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.

 
   

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