Wednesday’s Book Review: “Moon: A Brief History”

Moon-BrunnerMoon: A Brief History. By Bernd Brunner. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. 304 pages. Bibliographic essay, illustrations, acknowledgments, index. ISBN-13: 978-0300177695. Hardcover with dustjacket. $16.50 USD.

There is no question but that the Moon has had an important influence in human history, both for legitimate reasons and for a series of superstitions tied to it. It is by far the most dominant and changeable element in the night sky. It has kindled enthusiasm, joy, lust, fear, and horror upon generations of peoples of all races and cultures that have lived out their lives under its silvery reflected light. Defined differently from culture to culture and age to age, humankind remains captivated by its power. We have characterized it by its features, by its phases, and by its influence over Earthly entities whether they are animate or not.

Moongazing remains one of the oldest pastimes in the human experience. Ancient civilizations assigned it dominion over their lives through supernatural intervention; others have envisioned it as a home for extraterrestrial life. It inspires poets and artists, scientists and engineers, creators and destroyers. With the invention of the telescope at the turn of the seventeenth century—coinciding with the rise of the scientific revolution—the Moon took on new meaning as a tangible place with mountains and valleys and craters that could be named and geological features and events that could be studied.

This work seeks to encapsulate this sense of mystery about the Moon in a relative short and accessible work. Generally, the author does this well, and the general parameters of the manuscript are generally acceptable. I would have written this book differently if I had written it, but I will refrain from critiquing the manuscript that the author did not write. As it is, this book is a useful introduction to the cultural—certainly not the scientific, political, or even the social—history of the Moon.

This is an interesting and useful introductory overview and synthesis; it is not a work of scholarship that will change the manner in which we approach this subject. It is not a work that will become required reading for all those studying this subject. Having said that, it is a solid, useful, well-written work that should find an audience among students and casual readers.

One of the exciting aspects of lunar exploration at present, the possibility of ice buried in craters at the lunar poles, receives discussion in Brunner’s work. The late 1996 revelation from scientists that data returned by Clementine suggested that ice existed from an asteroid crash at the Moon’s Shackleton Crater at the South Pole re-energized lunar science. The temperature there never rises above about −170 degrees C, and any ice there could remain frozen for extremely long periods of time. Excitement over this discovery spurred the team developing Lunar Prospector, a small, spin-stabilized craft that would “prospect” the lunar crust and atmosphere for minerals, water ice, and certain gases; map the Moon’s gravitational and magnetic fields; and learn more about the size and content of the Moon’s core. Launched on January 6, 1998, Lunar Prospector began its short-term mission to globally map the Moon. Lunar Prospector’s most significant discovery, announced on March 5, 1998, was confirmation that somewhere between 10 to 300 million tons of water-ice was scattered inside the craters of the lunar poles. Not only was ice found—as expected—in the Aitken Basin of the lunar South Pole, but also in the craters of the North.

As the author makes clear, should this prove out the discovery of ice on the Moon portends enormous consequences. From ice, humans could create water, oxygen, and hydrogen. The latter could be used to produce rocket fuel and generate electricity. Solar rays would provide an additional source of energy for the half-month that the Sun faces that section of the Moon. If it proves out this finding makes human research stations on the Moon more possible than ever before.

There are some scientists, among them geologist Bruce Campbell of the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, who question that the data from Clementine and Lunar Prospector should be interpreted as evidence of lunar ice. Observations from the Arecibo radar observatory in Puerto Rico in 2006, suggest that the purported evidence of lunar ice may actually be a false positive associated with rocks containing hydrogen ejected from young craters. If true, this does not prohibit the possibility that there might be water ice in permanently shadowed craters, but it calls into question the evidence thus far supporting that conclusion. We will learn the answer to these questions in time.

I was also taken by Bernd Brunner’s discussion of the Moon landing conspiracy theory. It emerged in 1969, and there were important stories about it in the media at the time. It had, they argued, been faked in Hollywood by the federal government for purposes ranging—depending on the particular Apollo landing denier—from embezzlement of the public treasury to complex conspiracy theories involving international intrigue and murderous criminality.

Believers in this theory tapped into a rich vein of distrust of government, populist critiques of society, and questions about the fundamentals of epistemology and knowledge creation. Fueled by conspiracy theorists of all stripes, the number of deniers has grown over time. In a 2004 poll, while overall numbers remained about the same, among Americans between 18 and 24 years old “27% expressed doubts that NASA went to the Moon,” according to pollster Mary Lynne Dittmar. Doubt is different from denial, but it was a trend that seemed to be growing over time among those who did not witness the events.

Moon: A Brief History explores these and other themes in the history of the Moon in the human imagination.


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