Things Are Seldom What They Seem

The waning moon hung low on the horizon this morning, just 4 days short of crossing back to the evening sky, new moon. Its appearance this morning brought to mind Buttercup’s song in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, Things are Seldom What They Seem. “Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream,” she sings as she goes on to list a series of matters that turn out to be something else. Buttercup is trying to tell the Captain of the Pinafore that his daughter is in love with a common sailor and will not be marrying Sir Joseph, the Lord High Admiral. Yet even her song is not what it seems since it foretells of a last minute change of circumstance which suddenly raises the lowly sailor to captain’s rank and demotes the captain to the rank of sailor. Pure Gilbert and Sullivan fun and nonsense.

The moon is seldom what it seems and has been imbued with a number of anthropomorphic characteristics. Juliet admonishes Romeo “swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb.” Joseph Conrad, on the other hand writes “There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery,” while the playwright Christopher Fry wrote “The moon is nothing but a circumambulating aphrodisiac divinely subsidized to provoke the world into a rising birth rate.” The last quote, perhaps, sparked the popular song “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

My love affair with the moon began at an early age. When I was aged 10 or so, I got my first look at the moon through a telescope. Just shy of the 1st quarter, the field of view through the telescope opened up a whole new world for me. There were mountains and seas and craters of every size and description. It seemed as if I couldn’t get enough and the man, whose telescope it was, patiently let me explore the alien surface until I remembered myself and thanked him for allowing me to look. Instead of sending me on my way, he turned the telescope to Saturn and stepped back for me to look while he explained what I was seeing; the magnificent ring system and, next to it, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. He went on that night to show me Jupiter and Mars, orange Mars with a clearly visible polar ice cap and darker areas that could be mistaken for vegetation. I was hooked. Already high on the science fiction stories I had begun reading that summer, these glimpses through the telescope further fueled my imagination. Still, it was the moon, with its greater detail, which kept drawing me back.

The popular press of the time was beginning to fill up with stories of flying saucers and alien bases on the moon and I used to look at the moon with the hopes of catching an alien ship as it glided to its silent surface. Everyone, it seemed, was seeing and photographing flying saucers and meeting with aliens of every size, shape and description. I spent as much time as I could with the telescope in hopes of catching an alien sighting myself. As an aside, I should mention that I became good friends with the man who owned the telescope, good enough that he often loaned it to me and, when they left their cottage on Labor Day, he would leave it to my care until the following spring.

The telescope used to be a magnate for onlookers and it was seldom that someone did not stop by when I was out for an evening’s observation. Most quickly bored of the sights I used to show them, thanked me politely and continued on their way. It turns out that of the visible universe, what most holds people’s interest are the outer planets and the moon. Cloud covered Venus and the elusive Mercury showed no detail; no polar ice caps, no rings and no moons to catch their fancy. Some would ask me to show them a star, so I would try to find one of more than passing interest, a double star, for example, but all were disappointed with what I showed them. lilt doesn’t look any different,” was the common complaint. They’re too far away to show any detail, I would explain and I would get the look that insinuated, “then why bother looking at them?” One learns early in astronomy that things are seldom what they seem. Looking at the Andromeda galaxy, for example, can be disappointing. We are used to pictures of a pinwheel of stars of all colors and all that the telescope will show is a hazy blob. Not terribly impressive, even when one realizes the tremendous distance involved, 23 million light years away. Was someone on a planet orbiting a star in that galaxy looking at our own galaxy and wondering the same thing? Photography shows us a universe invisible to the human eye and Hubble and its successors never cease to be a source of wonder.

Not surprisingly, I decided at an early age that I was going to be an astronomer and actually began my college career with that goal in mind. But again, things are seldom what they seem and, realizing that I would never master the math involved, I change my major to history. A decision, incidentally, which I never regretted.

In ages past, we watched the moon and quaked in fear as it eclipsed the sun, turning day into night. Priests of an earlier time used the eclipse to their gain. They understood the mechanics of the celestial landscape which pinwheeled overhead very early in human history and had early calculated when eclipses, partial or total, would occur, using this knowledge to further their power. After all, what power must a man have who can command the sun to darken, or begin to do so and then return things to normal with but a word.

Astronomers have debated for years as to the moon’s origin. Some say it was carved out of the earth by some primeval collision while others suppose it was captured by the earth in the infancy of the solar system. Whatever the happenstance, the moon is, it would appear, essential to life on this planet; the tides it promotes creating the conditions that may have tempted the first early denizens of the sea to crawl up onto the land. Our current search for earth-like planets circling other suns is in part driven, I believe, by the hope that somewhere else a similar process has occurred and we are not alone in the universe.

Should this be so, I offer the following as a footnote. On a warm spring evening before we had yet taken the first steps into space, I had set up my telescope just after sunset in the hopes of catching sight of Mercury. The closest planet to the sun, its orbit does not bring it far above the horizon and it can be difficult to see in the after glow of the setting sun. Several people had gathered around, curious for look at this occasional phenomenon when a bright orange-colored object appeared in the western sky about 45 degrees above the horizon. I was not the first to see it as I was busy scanning just above the horizon for Mercury. “ls that it?” a neighbor asked, pointing to the object in question. Training the telescope on it, the object resolved into two football-shaped objects, one slightly above and to the left of the other. We took turns watching it through the telescope, easy to do since it did not move, but stayed in the same position relative to the horizon. Were the object a star or a planet, it would have had the decency to ‘set’ as the sun had just done. After about 15 minutes, it began to rise in the sky and arc to the east, the two objects never changing their position in relation to one another. When the object reached the earth’s shadow in the southeast, it slowly faded out and was gone. Like a good citizen, I reported the object to NORAD and received the polite response that we undoubtedly had seen a weather balloon. This explanation raised some doubts as I had seen weather balloons before and they never traveled in pairs and the ones I had seen tended to move about in the winds of the upper atmosphere. In short, I didn’t believe them and, to this day, still do not.

Things are seldom what they seem and while I don’t believe that little green men were flying through the night-time sky, I remain open to any rational explanation, excepting weather balloons. To paraphrase Yum-Yum in the Mikado ‚ÄĚpray make no mistake, we are not shy. We’re very wide awake, the moon and I.”