Pick from the Past
Natural History, October 1935

Astronomical Fiction

More than fifty years ago, the Astronomer Royal of England, Sir George Airy, made the statement that not one person in five thousand knows that the stars rise and set. I have repeated this statement before groups of intelligent persons and found, to be sure, a deplorable ignorance on the subject.

This lack of knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their motions has led to many amusing mistakes in literature, both ancient and modern. The classical example is found in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Persons living in a city, surrounded by its lights, do not perceive the heavens. They know that the sun makes its apparent daily journey across the sky, but their knowledge of the moon, its motion and phases, is decidedly hazy. It is only when they get out into the country, away from lights, that they get a clear conception of the starry heavens, the grouping of stars, their motion across the sky, and their difference in color and brightness.

This lack of knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their motions has led to many amusing mistakes in literature, both ancient and modern. The classical example is found in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd moon, with one bright star
Within its nether tip.

It is of course impossible for a star ever to appear within the crescent of the moon, for the stars are all far more distant than the moon and consequently never pass in front of its darkened face.

Dr. Clyde Fisher has called my attention to practically this same error in a modern book, The Bridal Wreath, where the sentence appears: “At the end of the street in the blue-green sky rode the new moon’s sickle, with a bright star within its horn.” The author possibly was influenced by Coleridge without recognizing the error.

There are two more possible errors in the passage from Coleridge. Though the context is not quite clear, it appears that the first half of the night is indicated, at which time the “horned moon” could not be rising in the east. However, it may have been the waning moon rising before the dawn. Be this as it may, other circumstances referred to in the poem, especially the very short twilight, imply that the ship was sailing in the tropics. The crescent moon then would be lying flat on its back, and there could be no “nether tip.” A line through the tips would be parallel to the horizon.

Strange Ways of the Moon

Edgar Allan Poe, in The Descent into the Maelstrom, commits a very glaring error. A ship whirling about in the funnel of the Maelstrom (an error also, for the Maelstrom forms no funnel) is lighted by the full moon, which shines directly overhead. This happens on the first of July when the full moon is far south of the equator and would barely rise above the southern horizon for an observer in Norway. To add to the error, the moon six hours later is setting in the west, whereas in reality a celestial object in the zenith in Norway would not set at all, but would be in the circle of perpetual apparition. Furthermore, on July 1 Norway would not have any night, and moonlight would be superfluous.

H. Rider Haggard, in King Solomon’s Mines, has a party of whites about to be overtaken and slain by a band of savages. They providentially escape because of the occurrence of a total eclipse of the sun during which they stumble along in total darkness for more than an hour. This is truly a remarkable eclipse, for the longest that can possibly happen is a little more than seven minutes, and even then it is not very dark. The evening of the same day they were helped along by the light of the full moon. This of itself is a startling occurrence, for a solar eclipse happens only at new moon, and full moon occurs only after a lapse of two weeks. But in fiction anything may happen. Astronomers so took Haggard to task, however, that this was changed in later editions.

A young and sentimental writer started a story in this way: “It was midnight, and the new moon was just rising in the east.” This moon must have got its trolley off the wire, for in the experience of most of us the new moon is always setting in the west, and does not remain visible until midnight.

Mrs. Gene Stratton Porter in her very delightful nature novels plays fast and loose with the moon. She can have it shining whenever and wherever she pleases, and it can do strange things.

Mrs. Gene Stratton Porter in her very delightful nature novels plays fast and loose with the moon. She can have it shining whenever and wherever she pleases, and it can do strange things. At one place in The Harvester, the half moon is just at the tree tops on the western horizon, which is quite proper. But later in the night it has risen clear of the trees and is flooding the country with light. This is of course impossible, for the moon never rises in the west. In another place it is stated that the moon every night made a bridge of light across a small lake. This could happen for a few nights, but not indefinitely.

Planting “in the Moon”

Many gardeners and farmers plant things “in the moon,” root crops in the dark, aërial crops in the light of the moon — or perhaps just the reverse. This belief that the moon exerts a strong influence upon vegetation seems to rest partly on the argument that if the moon produces the tides, it should likewise have some effect on the water in the soil. No account is taken of the fact that the moon has the same effect on the tides whether it is in the dark or the light phase. Tides, moreover, are purely a physical phenomenon, while plant growth depends upon chemical reactions. If one argues that moonlight favors plant growth in a manner similar to sunlight, the reasoning is likewise slipshod. We sometimes hear it said at the time of full moon that it is as light as day. Actually the light of the full moon is visually only about one six-hundred-thousandth as strong as full sunlight. A simple photographic experiment demonstrates this difference. Whereas in full sunlight an exposure of one hundredth of a second will produce a strong negative, in moonlight an exposure of two hours, or 720,000 times as long, will be necessary. So it is an exaggeration to claim that moonlight can exert any appreciable photosynthetic effect on vegetation.

The Moon and the Weather

I once knew a man who always planted his potatoes “in the moon.” One year when the moon was right, other conditions were all wrong. To wait another month for the moon would be too late, so in desperation he planted in the wrong time of the moon. His crop that years was the best he ever had. That converted him. Just a little reasoning or experimentation would cure many people of queer ideas.

It always worries an astronomer to see a painting in which the horns of the moon are directed toward the horizon, yet this is a common error. Actually they should point away from the horizon, because they always point away from the sun, which is below the horizon at night. Artists may see more in a scene than the average person, but they do not always see the heavens correctly.

Some persons profess to be able to predict a dry or wet month from the orientation of the crescent moon, depending upon whether it lies on its back or is at a considerable angle with the horizon. These positions have nothing whatever to do with mundane affairs, but are the result of the relative positions of the sun, moon and earth, which can be predicted years in advance. In latitudes of the northern United States the crescent in the winter is on its back, while in summer it is more nearly vertical. The weather, on the other hand, is decidedly capricious. Many persons swear by the predictions in patent medicine almanacs, not realizing that these predictions may have been made by the office boy, or someone equally ignorant of the weather. They are necessarily sometimes correct, but one correct prediction near at hand hides several false ones farther away. The experts of the weather bureau seldom venture to predict farther than a week in advance, and even then are extremely tentative in their statements.

Dr. E. E. Barnard, the famous astronomer, did not like the book Ben Hur, because Sheik Ilderim’s racing horses were named after stars which have Arabic names given them about 1000 A. D., while the events of the book took place at the beginning of the Christian Era. Such anachronisms are rather common in literature as well as in art. It is like putting a spyglass in the hands of Columbus, or placing an American flag at the head of Braddock’s army. General Lew Wallace also made another error in the Prince of India. An astrologer was on the house-top at midnight viewing the planets, among them Venus. Now a terrestrial Venus may keep late hours, but in India the celestial Venus is always tucked away below the western horizon before midnight, and does not appear above the eastern horizon till near the morning dawn.

Multitudes believe implicitly in the pseudoscience of astrology. That the stars and planets can have any influence whatever on the lives of human beings is utterly indefensible. Astrology has served only one fortunate purpose, namely in early years when the study of it led to the real science of astronomy.

Seeing Stars by Daylight

There is a pleasant fiction that from the bottom of a deep well or a lofty chimney in the daytime a bit of dark sky may be seen, spangled with stars. A very bright star might be seen, but certainly no others. The writer of a story had the hero fall into a deep pit, apparently without any serious injury to life or limb, but he remained there through the light hours of the day without rescue. His one ray of hope was one bright star which remained directly overhead all day. A very accommodating star. The writer was one of the 4999 out of every 5000 persons who do not know that the stars move across the sky.

A certain hazy condition of the sky makes it act like a mirror. In Pittsburgh we have often seen what the Allegheny Observatory staff calls “furnace comets.” They are faint yellowish vertical beams of light about 5º or 6º in length, which are the reflections of the flame of a Bessemer steel converter, and do look like comets. Most of the people of the city have never seen one, but when a person is so fortunate as to see one, he calls up the Observatory to find out about his discovery. During the apparition of Halley’s Comet in 1910 there were one or two nights in which several of these were visible at once. Then the Observatory telephone was kept busy. One message came:

“I see three comets; which is Halley’s?”

One evening a woman called and asked “Am I looking at Halley’s comet?”

She was answered, “Yes.”

“Oh, thank you,” was her reply.

Of course we did not know where she was looking, but if she saw a comet, it was certainly Halley’s, for no furnace comets were visible at the time.

Persons call and tell of some strange light in the sky, and asked for an explanation. When they are asked where it appeared, the answer is likely to be: “Just over the top of a certain hill, or above such-and-such large building.” This of course conveys no information, and when asked the direction in which it appeared, the replies are apt to be very hazy as to the points of the compass.

Read any work of fiction or poetry, and there is a chance of finding astronomical errors. One striking exception is that of Lord Tennyson, who, it is said, never made such a mistake.

About two years ago, when Venus was so bright in the northwest sky, the impression got abroad in Pittsburgh that it was a beacon light sent up by balloon from Akron airport. We finally exploded that idea by the argument that, since Akron is 100 miles from Pittsburgh, and Venus appeared at least 30º above the horizon, that light would have to be 50 miles above the earth’s surface. This is a good example of how little thinking is done by the average person when some startling idea is advanced.

Read any work of fiction or poetry, and there is a chance of finding astronomical errors. Not in all, however. One striking exception is that of Lord Tennyson, who, it is said, never made such a mistake. The secret is, that before writing any astronomical statement, he always consulted the Astronomer Royal. I would commend such a course to any writer not up on his astronomy.

“Read a little astronomy once a month or oftener, and see your astronomer at least twice a year.”

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