Who put the names on the moon?

If you have ever looked at a map of the moon you might have noticed that many of the selenographical features are named after astronomers and you might just have asked yourself how come? At this point several of my readers are probably thinking what in the name of all that is holy is selenographical. Don’t worry my spell checker just asked the same question. Now geography is a Greek word that literally means earth-writing from geo meaning earth and graphos meaning writing. Selenography is moon-writing from Selene the Greek goddess of the moon and graphos. So selenographical features are what someone who is not a pendent pedant like me would probably refer to incorrectly as geographical features of the moon. Now back to the main plot. The person who chose to name the selenographical feature after astronomers was the Jesuit mathematician, astronomer and physicist Giovanni Battista Riccioli who was born 17th April 1598.

Selenography was first made possible by the invention of the telescope in Middelburg in Holland in 1608. In fact the oldest extant record of an astronomer using a telescope as an astronomical instrument is a drawing of the moon made by Thomas Harriot on 26th July 1609.

Harriot’s drawings are very primitive, mere sketches, and cannot be compared with the justifiably famous moon drawings published by Galileo Galilei in his Sidereus Nuncius from 1610. Galileo unlike Harriot was a trained artist and realised that what he was seeing through his telescope were three dimensional landscape features, mountains, valleys, etc.

From then on selenography, mapping the moon, became a major occupation of telescopic astronomers. The three most extensive and accurate maps of the moon produced in the 17th century are those of Michel Florent van Langren from 1645, of Hevelius published in his Selenpgraphia Selenographia 1647 and that of Grimaldi and Riccioli in the latter’s Almagestum Novum from 1651.

Michel Florent van Langrens map gives the major lunar features the names of Catholic royalty and saints. The maria were given Latin names of seas and oceans. Minor craters were given the names of astronomers, mathematicians, and other notable scholars of the past and present periods.

Hevelius ignored van Langrens nomenclature and named the lunar features after similar features on the earth using classical Greek and Latin names.

Riccioli and Grimaldi introduced a systematic nomenclature first dividing the moon into eight zones. Seas and the plains in between were given descriptive historical names, tranquillity, serenity etc. and they followed van Langren in naming the craters after scholars and in particular astronomers. As a gesture to the Catholic Church some craters were named after saints but only saints connected with astronomy. The Riccioli/Grimaldi nomenclature was the one that one won the day and is still largely intact today.


Filed under History of Astronomy

21 responses to “Who put the names on the moon?

  1. Pingback: Who put the names on the moon? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. So if I’m sitting in a moonbase while I write out a proof to they Pythagorean Theorm, am I practicing selenometry

    • thonyc

      If your triangle is on the surface of the moon then its non-Euclidian and the theorem of Pythagorus is not valid 😉

  3. Really enjoyed reading this post; very interesting and great images too.

  4. Hmm. Interesting article. Even though you pride yourself on a rare degree of acuity in wordsmithing, I notice you denominate yourself as a “pendent.” Of course, I assume you meant to write the word “pedant.” (Normally a humorous pejorative term.) But unless you might mean that your continual fawning over Newton makes you a pendent of the British “nobility.”

    • thonyc

      There are several possible explanations for this supposed mishap and you are welcome to choose that which best fits your personal predilections.

      a) I can’t spell and I’m even worse at proofreading
      b) I deliberately include small grammatical and orthographic errors in my posts so that my readers are not only entertained and educated but also have the chance to demonstrate their superiority over the author by pointing to his failings
      c) I’m an orthographic anarchist
      d) I can’t spell and I’m even worse at proofreading

  5. A facsimile of Helevenius’ Selenographia is available online at:
    Sadly I don’t read latin…

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  7. Jeb

    Very nice. Particularly liked the evolution of the images. Harriot’s seems to me more powerful than more elaborate ones, not sure why.

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