A book for lunatics

The world has currently gone moon crazy, because it is now fifty years since a couple of American went for a walk on the moon. This has meant the usual flood of books, journal, magazine and newspaper articles, blog post and, Twitter and Facebook postings that now accompany any such #histSTM anniversary that is considered by the media world to be significant enough. With the following statement I shall probably lose half of my Twitter following overnight but personally I don’t find this particular anniversary especially interesting. I do have one peculiar biographical quirk in that I don’t think I actually watched that first moon landing; at least I have absolutely no memory of having done so. The last weeks of the school year 1968–69 were a highly emotional time for me. I had just been expelled from boarding school but was still living there as my fees were paid up to the end of the school year and my parents were away on sabbatical in Indonesia. Somehow all of that was more important in my life than some guys going for a walk on the moon.

Although I have skimmed the occasional newspaper/magazine/Internet article I have not and will not bother to buy and read any of the apparently X zillion books that have been thrown onto the market to celebrate the occasion. I will admit to having treated myself to Ewen A. Whitaker’s Mapping and Naming the MoonA History of Lunar Cartography and Nomenclature (CUP, ppb. 2003), which actually has little to do with the actual anniversary. I have however acquired and read one book written specifically for the anniversary Oliver Morton’s The Moon: A History for the Future (The Economist Books, 2019). I got this for free because I read and suggested corrections for those bits of the book dealing with the Early Modern Period. Although, I saved the author from making, what I consider to be a serious error but which the normal reader probably wouldn’t even have noticed, I think my contribution to the final product was so minimal that I can safely review it without fear of personal bias.


We’ll start at the top with the very simple statement; this is truly an excellent book. I would be very tempted to say, if you only read one book on the moon this year then you could do worse than choose this one. However, not having read any of the others, this would not be very fair to the other moon book authors. Back to the praise, Morton’s book is a wonderful literary tour de force, which is also incredibly informative. He combines the histories of astronomy, technology, the moon landings and science fiction to create a stimulating potpourri of lunar lore and selenology.

The book is divided into eight sections rather than chapters, each of which deals with a different aspect of humanity’s relationship with the Moon. Section I introduces the reader to the phenomenon of earthshine, the light reflected from the Earth that illuminates those parts of the Moon not lit by the Sun, both its discovery in the Early Modern Period and its use in modern times for scientific experiments. Section II deals with studies of the Moon’s appearance from the High Middle Ages down to the twentieth century. Section III takes us along the path of the development of rocketry up to Apollo and then with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins on Apollo 11 to that first ever moon landing. Section IV takes a look at the various theories to explain the origins of the Moon and its geology. Section V deals with the end or better said the collapse of the Apollo program and then over the years the various suggestions for economically viable schemes to return to the Moon, here Morton demonstrates his strengths as a narrator. Although he is obviously a space fan he carefully details why such schemes were largely unrealistic or impractical. Section VI examines the various schemes currently being developed for a real return. Having got there, section VII discusses what to do when we get there if we do go back. Section VIII looks at negative literary depictions of the Moon illustrating rather nicely that maybe the Moon isn’t such an attractive place to visit.

This listing of the main themes of each section doesn’t do Morton’s inventiveness justice. He weaves lots of side topics into the weft of his main narratives taking his readers down many highways and byways, leaving the readers with the impression that he has consumed a vast library of lunar information, an impression strengthened by the extensive bibliography.  His real achievement is to pack so much fascinating information into so few pages, whilst retaining a wonderful light readable style. His book is both an encyclopaedia and a work of art.




Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of science, History of Technology

4 responses to “A book for lunatics

  1. Jacob Kanev

    Thank you for your recommendation! This sure sounds interesting, I’ll have a look.

    Frankly, I’m rather annoyed by all the moon-craze. There have been many anniversaries regarding space in the last time – The invention of modern rocket science (Konstantin Tsiolkovsky). The first Satellite in space, sending signals to earth (Sputnik). The first animal in space (Laika, the polar dog). The first man in space (Juri Gagarin). The first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova). The first man getting out of a space craft and doing a space walk (Alexey Leonov). The first remote controlled car on the moon (the Lunachod). NONE of these ever are mentioned because they happen to have been achieved by the wrong country. Humans landing on the moon were certainly a technological achievment, but seen in context they are just one more step in a row of several.

    So, before we can buy Valentina Tereshkova action figures, or get flooded by adverts for remote controlled toy lunachods, or see a Hollywood movie about Alexey Leonov, I simply don’t care about this trip of a certain guy called Armstrong.

  2. I also have a Moon-related book that I can recommend “Left Brains for the Right Stuff” by Hugh Blair-Smith who worked at the MIT Instrumenation Laboratory on the Guidance, Navigation and Control (GN&C) computer for the Apollo programme. My only reservation is he is not a historian, so I recommend starting reading at Chapter 4 which covers his childhood and early career before he joined Charles Stark Draper’s laboratory.

  3. Buenos momentos cuando leo y encuentro libros bien recomendados.

  4. Mary

    perhaps this is the place to ask a question that’s been driving me nuts since childhood: the moon visible in the daytime sky – why are there no paintings from centuries past that depict this? An acquaintance insists this is a recent phenomena, and the moon wasn’t visible in daytime sky thus no representations.
    This assertion seems absurd, but?

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