Moon mappers: scientists & dreamers
Mapping the Great Cheese, and some other cheesy observations about our love of the Moon
24 November 2016
We are captivated by our nearest celestial dance partner, and joyfully turn out in droves at vantage points to howl at a Super Moon, or the recent “Extra-super Moon”. We now know so much about the moon, with our scientific knowledge expanding exponentially since we first stamped our footprints on its surface. But even the suggestion that strange moods and behaviours are linked to the Super Moon shows that we still revere its watchful presence and attribute to it secret powers.
Maps are often an attempt to tame the wilderness of the human imagination, by imposing mathematical and scientific principles onto a landscape until it is sufficiently understood in terms of spatial relationships and terrain. The moon was “captured” by mapping with the help of evolving telescopic equipment as early as the 17th century, and some conventions established on these early maps are still in use (such as referring to the large dark expanses as maria [seas]). Many craters were named on these early maps, and retain these names today. In this sense, maps document our progressive shift from the unknown to the known.
But sometimes it is the map itself that sparks a fantastical journey into “imagination, speculation, perhaps even trepidation” – an inspiration to journey off-map, back into the unknown (Nat Williams, Mapping Our World, p.XVI).
Recognising that there was so much more to know, the makers of Carte générale de la lune (General Map of the Moon, published 1887, acquired by the Library in July 2016) had a vision to make astronomy more accessible. The French text on the map declares that it is a map of convenient format, delivered at an affordable price. It was thought that further studies of the Moon would be enhanced by this robust geographical guide, as the undertaking of painstaking and consistent observation through a telescope was not replicable by the average enthusiast. The map is based on the work of renowned astronomers Camille Flammarion and C.M. Gaudibert, and designed by Léon Fenet.
In 1923, Flammarion was still musing on the possibility of lunar lifeforms in his book Dreams of an Astronomer – “beings organised differently from ourselves who can live in an extremely rarefied atmosphere” (p.10). On this subject, Flammarion has form, taking an early interest in Professor Percival Lowell’s notion that superior beings were likely inhabitants of the planet Mars based on the presence of a canal network that distributed flood waters across the plains of Mars.
Flammarion was also a dreamer and master of besotted description of all things lunar. Flammarion describes in Dreams of an Astronomer:
The silent Moon, sphinx of the sky, shone already on the waters silvered by her splendour millions of years ago, while terrestrial humanity was still awaiting its slow unfoldings in the limbo of future possibilities…. To-night she shines upon a populous and active humanity, flourishing cities, marble palaces, built amid the clouds. Just now, at my feet, a pair of lovers called upon her to witness their eternal vows, forgetting that her rapid phases are the symbol of our changefulness and our shortness of life (pp. 10-11).
Flammarion could equally be describing those who basked in the pale glow of the Super Moon this week.
On a hunt for more lunar cartography in the Library’s Maps Collection, I stumbled across what, at first glance, I excitedly thought were plans for the first Death Star…. In fact it was a beautiful 1910 detailed map of the Moon on 25 plates, drawn by Walter Goodacre.
Goodacre was a dreamer himself, aptly handling the family coir and carpet business as a young man, but working towards building a career around his true passion, astronomy. His famous A map of the moon in XXV sections was based on 1433 measured points by S.A. Saunder, F.R.A.S, and on his own years of study of the Moon.
Goodacre has achieved wonderful detail for the limitations of the human eye viewing through a telescope. Current earth-bound telescopes have improved very little on the detail achieved by Goodacre. Today satellite cameras take high-resolution images of the surface to produce highly detailed mapping.