The Moon is a place


* La Luna es un lugar

"Plato had defined the human being as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes [of Sinope, the Cynic] plucked the feathers off a fowl and brought it to the conference room with the words, 'Here is Plato's man'. " This story, told by Diogenes Laertius in "Life and Opinions of Eminent philosophers", ca. s. III C.E., should serve to alert us that simply saying that the Moon is a natural satellite of the Earth is far from the whole truth.

For the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the "bipes implume" thrown by the Cynic is Charon (also known as Caron or Caronte), moon of distant Pluto. In 2006, amid a growing debate over Pluto having been erroneously classified as a planet at the time of its discovery in 1930 (see my article " 'What?! Pluto no longer a planet?' "), the XXVIth IAU General Assembly adopted Resolution B5, where for the first time ever ruled on what should be called planet: "The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies, except satellites, in our Solar System be defined into three distinct categories..." and there Pluto was taken out of the planet category. The attentive reader will note that it says "except satellites." On the IAU website clues are given as to why: "for now, Charon is considered just to be Pluto's satellite.", but a change in classification "may be considered later." because "Actually, there has been no official recognition that the location of the barycenter [the point the body goes around in its revolution] is involved with the definition of a satellite." Charon does not go around Pluto, but around a point in the space between them, as happens in Patoruzú's boleadoras. To make matters worse, it shares the strange Pluto system with Hydra, Nix (alternate spelling of Nyx) and the recently discovered Kerberos (rather than Cerberus) and Styx, four irregular lumps of matter, of just 65 km x 45 km x 25 km and 50 km x 35 km x 33 km the first two; even smaller, of 19 km x 10 km x 9 km, the third one; and the fourth one that, being 16 km x 9 km x 8 km in size, only Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the magical writer of "The Little Prince", would had had enough moral authority to call it planet. So, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and Styx would be distant satellites of both larger bodies (simultaneously) but Charon, with its about 1200 km and its round shape (in "hydrostatic equilibrium", according to the IAU's definition of a planet) would not be a satellite, but it cannot be a planet either because nor even Pluto, though having almost nine times more mass than Charon, gets to be considered a planet, etc.. As we can see, the attempt to classify Charon ends up becoming quite confusing.


And that's the problem with definitions: they always leave something out. The truth is that the Universe is as it is and not as we would like it to be. The great philosopher Plato would have done much better if instead of trying to define what a human being is would have been content with simply describing it.

The prestige of Plato, and his portentous followers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, made ​​that the "whys" and the "what fors" remain the dominant topic of concern in Natural Philosophy until after the Middle Ages, when the Scientific Revolution, initiated by Galileo Galilei, foretold by Copernicus and completed by Kepler and Newton, finally displaced those kind of questions by the less pretentious "hows".


To better understand this Scientific Revolution, let me quote Alberto Maiztegui and Jorge Sabato, "Introduction to Physics", 1951: "Galileo inaugurated a new era in Science, by putting observation and experience as the final judge. The Greeks were great mathematicians and philosophers, but did not excel in Physics, precisely because Physics is a science based on observation and experience. The Greeks were excellent reasoners, and believed that 'everything' could be solved by thinking and discussing. Galileo, however, admitted the importance of reasoning, but left experience give the verdict. With him the era of modern Science begins" (Taken from: ©Introductory Physics, by Maiztegui and Sabato, Kapelusz, Buenos Aires, 1951. With permission).

Exactly 400 years ago, in 1610, Galileo Galilei published his book "Sidereus Nuncius" ("Stellar messenger", translated from Neo-Latin), in which he described his observations with the newly invented telescope. With the help of it he discovered the craters of the Moon, and that this body also has mountains and valleys, ranges and plains similar to those on Earth: "... so if someone wants to revive the old opinion of the Pythagoreans, the one that the Moon is another Earth, so to speak, the bright part may well represent the surface of land, and the dark one the amplitude of water. In fact, I never doubted that if the face of the Earth is seen from a distance, when flooded with the rays of the Sun, that part of the surface that is land would present itself to view brighter, and that that it is water like darker in comparison."

After more than two decades of additional astronomical observations, Galileo Galilei published in 1632 his masterpiece "Dialogue sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo" ("Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World"), a book that ended up making the great scientist land right in front of the infamous torture devices of the Inquisition. The Roman Catholic Church had a very good idea of what the Moon and the heavens should be: perfect spheres, perpetual and immutable. But Galileo challenged Religion and treated the Curia as nothing short of arrogant for defining the Moon as alien to the Earth, when writing: "You say that the alterations that can be seen close at hand on Earth [in Italy] can not be seen in America because of the great distance. Well, much less can be seen on the Moon, which is many hundreds of times more distant. And if you believe in changes in Mexico based on news from there, what reports do you have from the Moon to convince yourself that there are no changes there?"

To final effects, the Roman Catholic Church forced him, under bodily threat, to deny that worldly and earthly affairs and phenomena, them so full of chaos and corruption, could perhaps happen on the Moon and beyond (and vice versa), as Galileo had proposed when writing, among other things: "I do not know nor I guess that herbs or plants or animals similar to ours are propagated on the moon, or rain and winds and storms occur there as on Earth; let alone than it is inhabited by men. But I still do not see that it necessarily follows that since things similar to ours are not generated there, no change takes place, or that there may be things that do change or are generated or dissolved;"


The works of Jules Verne, the second most translated author in History, are notable for their scientific accuracy. While not surpassing H.G. Wells in literary aesthetics, Verne was very much an Arthur C. Clarke of the nineteenth century, fantasizing but without abandoning known science; he acted almost like an engineer of a very-long-term project. It is understandable then that his novel "De la Terre à la Lune" ("From the Earth to the Moon"), published in 1865, has striking resemblance to the real Apollo missions, of more than a century later.

Verne did not foresee the potential objections to the annexation of the Moon by the United States that a future Soviet Union could come to have raised. This possibility was cut by the UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which prohibits such space annexations. However, Verne contemplated it when writing: "There are none of you, brave fellows, who has not seen the Moon, or at least heard of it. Do not be surprised if I come to entertain you here in relation to the great night light. It is possibly reserved for us to be the Columbus of this unknown world. Understand me, second me with all your power, I will lead you to its conquest, and her name will join those of the thirty-six states that make up this great country of the Union."

Even though Verne did not imagined a space race, he envisioned what concept the Americans would have of the moon while planning to embark on such a journey, contrasting it with the concepts held by several groups of superstitious: "There is left in the last place the superstitious class of the ignorants. They were not content with ignoring, they knew what is not, and pertaining the Moon they knew since long ago. The ones considered its disc as a polished mirror through which various points on Earth could be seen and their thoughts communicated. The others claimed that out of a thousand new moons observed, nine hundred and fifty were accompanied by significant changes, such as cataclysms, revolutions, earthquakes, floods, etc.; they believed in a mysterious influence of the great night light on human destinies; they regarded it as a 'true counterbalance' of existence; they thought that every Selenite is attached to every inhabitant of the Earth by a bond of sympathy; alongside Dr. Mead, they argued that the vital system itself is entirely submissive, undeterred saying that boys are born mostly in the new moon, and that girls under the waning moon, etc.. But in the end he had to give up these vulgar errors, he had to return to the one truth, and if the Moon, stripped of its influence, lost all power in the spirit of certain courtiers, if some of them turned around, the vast majority pronounced for her. As for the Yankees, they had no other ambition than to take possession of this new continent of the sky and fly in its highest peak the star-spangled banner of the United States of America."


In the twentieth century came by radio from the selenite Sea of Tranquillity the first reports from those strange lands (transcribed in the "Apollo Lunar Surface Journal", available at

- Buzz Aldrin: "Beautiful view!"

- Neil Armstrong: "Isn't that something! Magnificent sight out here."

- Buzz Aldrin: "Magnificent desolation." [Long pause. Still holding on to the ladder with both hands, Buzz hops backwards onto the surface.]

The fact that "Homo sapiens" began to transfigure itself into a multiplanetary species was evident when a reporter from the magazine "Popular Science" (July 1999, p.69) asked incautiously to the last man to walk up there, Gene Cernan, if the Moon will have human beings living there some time in the future. Cernan's response was that he himself had already done so for more than three days.


With your kind permission, I would like to summarize this essay by borrowing poet Rabo Serpsé's pen, as it came to me via the "The Moon is a place", Spork Press, Autumn 2001 (special thanks to Drew Burk for aiding with this courtesy):

"The moon is a place, is a place, a place where men have been, left their awkward footprints and that lonely flag that at first refused to stand. I forget this sometimes. I’ve wondered if they still see the moon as a place, not a grapefruit, not a thumbnail, not a light lit for lovers or murderers. Do they see the face of an old man, the face of a beautiful woman wearing blue lipstick, or is it merely terrain now? Did they forget as soon as they came back? It’s just the moon again, it’s just the moon."

[...] "I forget that the moon is a place, that it always has been and would have been even if no one ever went there."

Aldo Loup.

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Photograph: Charlie Duke on the Moon, standing next to an impact crater during the Apollo 16 mission. The lunar car is in the background, with its antenna pointed toward Earth. The bright spots are reflections of the Sun in this permanently-black sky. Note the human footsteps and that Duke has his knees and both hands completely dirty from collecting, over and over, terrain samples. Credit: Photo taken by John Young / NASA.