On Bringing Things Down to Scale

October 28 is International Observe the Moon Day. Yep. Our lovely celestial neighbor gets a special day on the calendar. Or, rather, a special night.  Here in our corner of the globe, the moon will be waxing gibbous; a little more than 50% illuminated.  56% to be more precise. It will wax fuller as we move toward Hallowe’en. On that night the little roving spooks will have 83% of the moon’s potential light to guide their mischievous meanderings through the neighborhood.  Unless it’s cloudy.

I always liked the word ‘gibbous’.  It seemed to suggest something awkward, stumbling, a little bit funny. Almost a kind of ‘baby talk’ nonsense babble, with that double ‘b’.  Research says it comes from the Latin, ‘gibbosus’ which means ‘humpbacked.’  Anyway …

Readers of this blog know I am fascinated with the moon and may remember I took a course, “All Things Moon,” at the Natural History Museum a while ago. So interesting, and fun.  As I’m writing this, I’m looking at the model of the earth/moon relationship each of us in the class built and took home; a simple illustration of the relative size of the moon vs the earth and its distance from us, using everyday objects; a tennis ball and a penny, and string.

If you lay out the model, say, on your dining room floor, the distance representing the 240,000+ miles between earth and the moon measures about 7 feet. Somehow that seems to make the relationship much more intimate and graspable.

Modeling incomprehensible science through human-scale or everyday examples is one way for us to develop some appreciation, if not understanding of impossibly complex or otherwise inscrutable things.

The image of a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline, for example, as a model for the warping geometry of spacetime and gravity.

Or a frog in a pot on the stove, which doesn’t notice the temperature rising until it is too late, as a metaphor for climate change.

Harder, I think is the effort to find compelling alternate examples or metaphors or analogies to spark understanding of what’s happening to our democracy.  We have to take a hard look at the real thing and recognize the escalating reality of tyranny for what it really is.

I was recently introduced to an amazing, insightful and quite alarming little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University.  Barely larger than a pack of cards, within the book’s 120 pages Professor Snyder details 20 historical examples from the very recent past that are clear and precise red flags for the present. Each chapter is titled with one of 20 concise directives to counter the rise of tyranny in a society.  They are both a global societal call to action at the same time they are a personal, individual primer for resistance.  Here they are:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Beware of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact with small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

I hope these exhortations make you want to read the book. You can finish it in an hour and you can get it used for less than $5.00 from abebooks.com.  I keep mine on the end table in my living room along with my pocket constitution. 

200 years is a short time in the history of civilization.  Who says our democracy will last forever?  Unless continuously defended and enlivened, it certainly will not.

We cannot stop our moon from moving imperceptibly away from us – as it is doing at the rate of 1.4 inches a year – generating the shifts in tides and rotation and axis the earth will experience millennia from now. That scale of time and gravitational force cannot be reckoned with.  But the current threats to our enlightened democracy are at a scale and within a timeframe that can. We will all need to ‘be as courageous as we can,’ however, as the ‘unthinkable’ moves toward arrival.

Something to think about while observing our lovely, essential but “inconstant moon.”

Here’s an image with a poem I wrote as part of “Moving Minds” – a public art project putting poetry inside city buses. Here’s the poem.

Night Song

The moon, sudden as a door slam,
rang the night awake.

The Aztecs saw a rabbit there.
For me, a singer croons;

a lunar anthem sounding
from the cloud-less mouth

of Mare Nubium; its tone
the perfect ‘A’ of Mozart’s clarinet.

© 2007: Kathleen Cerveny

 

 

 

 

3:37 AM …

… and the deeply cratered southern lunar highlands have slipped below the upper edge of the skylight in my room. The rectangle of bright light from the full February moon has been sliding up the covers of my bed and now moves onto my pillow and into my eyes, waking me.

I estimate that the slice of skylight I can see from the angle of my bed equals not quite two of the moon’s diameters. I decide to watch the bright beacon descend on its westward trajectory as long as I can keep my eyes open.  I manage the task, watching the moon crawl slowly down through the spidered tips of the trees in the back yard. I can actually see it move.  Which is thrilling.  By 4:45, nothing is left but a soft glow at the bottom of the frame emanating from the now-hidden moon. I am tempted to go downstairs to watch it continue its journey, but I know from that lower angle it will be lost in the tangle of trees and the houses on the street behind my house.  So I go back to sleep. DSC00585

I’ve always been confounded by the movement of the moon. It’s never in the same place night after night. I recently took a wonderful class at the Natural History Museum, All Things Moon, and learned a lot. The moon moves approximately its own diameter each hour against the background of the stars – or a little more than .5 degrees along its orbit around the earth. It takes about 27 1/3 days for the moon to complete an orbit while the earth keeps spinning/rotating. 360 degrees divided by 27.3 days = 13.2.  So the moon rises and sets 13.2 degrees to the west each day and moves .5 degrees against the stars each hour of the day/night.  There’s a reasonably clear explanation of it all here, but it still makes my head spin.

Does the moon stun you, as it does me?  As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with it. Some years ago I wrote a poem that tried to capture that stunned feeling and it was chosen in a contest that was part of a local effort to put poetry on city buses.  Here’s the bus card that was produced.  DSC00526

The artwork was done by then Kent State Design Studio student Alexandra Charitan. I was a little upset that the image of the moon was reversed from what we see, but also learned from my class at the Museum, that photographs taken through certain kinds of telescopes reversed the image. The good thing, though, was that the big red lips ended up exactly over the Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds) mentioned in the poem; the dark basalt plain in the southern hemisphere that I always imagined was the singer’s mouth.  Here’s the poem:

Night Song
The moon, sudden as a door slam,
rang the night awake.
The Aztecs saw a rabbit there.
For me, a singer croons.
A lunar anthem sounding
from the cloud-less mouth
of Mare Nubium; its tone
the perfect ‘A’ of Mozart’s clarinet.

Interestingly, since I wrote that poem I don’t see the ‘man in the moon’ singing anymore, as I once did.  It’s rabbits every night. What do you see?

I don’t know why I am so fascinated with the moon.  It just seems an impossible, magical thing, hanging up there in the sky.  You’d think that, with all we now know about it the romance of the moon would diminish.  But for me, it’s only grown.

Through the All Things Moon course, delightfully taught by the Museum’s deeply knowlegeable Shafran Observatory Manager, Clyde Simpson, I learned just how unique and symbiotic our Earth-Moon system is. In the massive collision of another planet (appropriately named Theia, in Greek mythology, a Titan goddess and mother of the moon goddess Selene), into our own 4.5 billion years ago, we acquired our mighty heart of iron.  In return we blasted and spun off fragmented elements of our crust which coalesced over time into the shining rock, locked in its orbit around us each day.  We are, in fact, geologic twins, or at least siblings.

Our world and life as we know it would not be possible without the companionable influence of our moon. The fact that it is moving away from us a tiny, tiny bit every year worries me.

“The Moon continues to spin away from the Earth, at the rate of 3.78cm (1.48in) per year, at about the same speed at which our fingernails grow.”  Dr. Maggie Alderin-Pocock

Read about it here.

 

Confrontation with the Moon

Full Moon732X520This morning, as the crescent moon sailed up the sky from the east, it pulled bright Venus and Saturn in its wake.  All three climbed, in straight-line order, through the bare-branch ladder of my neighbor’s front lawn tree, winking on and off as they advanced past each twiggy rung. Earlier, when I first rose, Jupiter shone through my bedroom skylight, with the tiny ruby of Mars in tow.

January 6 AM

Four planets and the moon in formation, marching up the January sky. The website EarthSky says that Mercury is there as well, just above the eastern horizon, but the structures of civilization block my view. I expect the brightening sky will make this planet invisible by the time it rises above the housetops.

I have come to love the dark early mornings of winter, when the sky is cloudless and the air, clean as crystal. With a dusting of snow, as there is today, everything seems more sharply defined—more open and exposed.  There’s no barrier between me and the cosmos.

Tonight I am taking my first of four classes at the Natural History Museum: All Things Moon.  And I am remembering the first time I saw the moon through a telescope, about 30 years ago.  When I put my eye to the eyepiece and the moon floated into view – so clear – it actually scared me. I could see the craters, the mountains and plains so razor sharp, right there-in front of me.  The distance between us disappeared and I was confronted, face-to-face, with the moon. Apollo 17

Confronted.  It felt like a confrontation; so powerful and immediate and undeniable in its detail.  The moon became real to me that night in a way it had never existed before. It became an impossible thing, a magical and deliciously frightening thing, hanging there in the night sky.

My mind could rationalize all I knew about how and why it was there – the gravitational attraction that created its intrinsically linked orbit, and the sun-earth shadows that engineered its shifting phases.  But the primitive in me was touched and the moon’s existence in my world suddenly became both impossible and frighteningly necessary, all at once.

I understand that our earth is alone among planets in its possession of a large moon so closely linked to and influencing the daily environmental activities of the planet. The tenuousness of life on earth – how thin the line is between what makes life possible or impossible in the universe is both wondrous and scary.

earthriseIn confronting the critical necessity of the moon’s existence to our own, here on this fragile planet—how can we continue to deny the impact of our influence on that tenuousness?

 

 

 

Photo credits: NASA Moon Gallery

Staying Surprised

I’ve never really understood the choreography of the orbits of the earth and moon. Friends in tune with such things send me lunar calendars each Christmas, and for a while I try to follow phases and anticipate the moon’s appearance in the evening or the morning sky.  oreo moonsBut I am always glad to give it up.

A few nights ago, just before its fullness, the moon awakened me at 3 AM, shining in my face through the skylight in my room.  It was a lovely moment, a private and surprising moment between the moon and me. By the time I rose at 6, it had almost set—just hovering amidst the trunks of neighbor’s trees at the back of my yard.  But today, it still rides high above my roof at 7 AM while the sun begins to flush the sky behind the houses across the road.

I could consult the website, www.earthsky.org on my phone before I go to bed, I suppose, to know what to expect. But I love the mystery, the surprise.  It’s another version of the adventure of discovering my neighborhood and how it subtly changes day to day.

Last week, in this unusually warm November, I sighted a wooly bear crawling out from under a bright red leaf.  I tried to remember what weatherman Dick Goddard said about its bands of black and rust that could predict the fierceness of the winter yet to come. Was it the wider the central band the harsher the winter, or the milder?  No matter.  It was fun to watch its furry inching walk, like a child’s wind-up toy.  wolly bear

So much of the world is predictable – can be known.  The changing of the seasons is no mystery. Neither is the movement of the stars.  But I want to be surprised, retain the air of wonder at the little shifts, the things I may have seen a thousand times before, but now are new.  “Pay attention!” the zen master says, as he whaps you with his staff to wake you from your state of mindlessness.

2015-01-24 17.06.59

Today I see the frost has finally come, and a little snow.  My skylight is rimed with the alchemy of cold and condensation.  As I step outside I see that in a shallow puddle on the sidewalk, tiny needles of ice have begun to cast their tatted nets of lace outward from the shore.

DSC00485

Floating Social Media Icons by Acurax Wordpress Designers
Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Twitter