Is he  Moonstruck? 

Definition of moonstruck: affected by or as if by the moon: such as: mentally unbalanced

There was a total lunar eclipse on Monday 16 May. This celestial event was, of course, widely announced in advance on social media, with experts giving start and end times as well as duration. They also give detailed explanation of why, how, and when lunar eclipses take place. This meant that worldwide literally millions of people were happily, even excitedly, looking forward, weather permitting, to observing it. So, TV celebrity and aging popinjay Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to dump on all of these people when he tweeted to his 14.6 million followers the following tweet on 16 May:

Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular that if nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you’d probably not notice at all. Just sayin’.

Ignoring, for a second, the glaring, factual inaccuracy contained in this tweet, it has to be a very serious candidate for the most mean-spirited tweet of the year if not of the decade. One has to seriously ask, why did he do this? Has he become such a desperate, attention-seeking whore that he needs to try and ruin the simple enjoyment of millions world-wide just to provoke a reaction on Twitter?

As a historian of both astronomy and astrology, I expect a man, who once upon a time in his life was an astrophysicist, not to display such ignorance, so publicly in such a spectacular manner. “Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular…” really? “If nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you’d probably not notice at all,” only if you’ve got your head firmly entrenched in your posterior orifice.

The moon glows red over Columbus, Ohio on Sunday Source

The phenomenon of light pollution, which makes life so difficult for modern astronomers, is actually a very recent development that only became a factor in celestial observation during the course of the twentieth century. Before the eighteenth century, street lighting was confined to large towns and consisted candles or oil lamps and didn’t cause serious light pollution. Even the invention of gas street lighting in the eighteenth century, or of electric street lighting in the nineteenth had no noticeable effect on the night sky. It was first in the twentieth century with the widespread use of strong electric lighting at night that the night skies in towns and cities became so artificially bright as to obscure the night-time celestial sphere. Even then a full moon remains clearly visible for all who are not visually handicapped. 

In the millennia of human existence before the invention of street lighting, the moon was the brightest object in the sky, particularly when full, on a clear night. Lunar eclipses only occur at full moon, and if you happened to be outside in, shall we say, for example, in the eighth century CE, during full moon and the moon started to disappear finally vanishing completely behind a dark shadow, you just might happen to notice. “Just sayin’.” 

Of course, people fucking noticed! Every culture on the Earth, that existed before they discovered the scientific explanation of why lunar eclipses take place has myths, legends, and folktales to explain what happened, when the full moon suddenly started to disappear. For the Maya and the Inca in Middle America, the moon got devoured by a jaguar, which also explained the colour of the so-called blood moon. In ancient Mesopotamia, it was belived that the eclipse was the result of demons attacking the moon and that it presaged an attack upon, or even the death of the king. For the ancient Chinese a lunar eclipse was caused by a dragon biting the moon. For something they didn’t notice, people went to a lot of trouble to invent reasons to explain it.

Tyson, as per usual, doubled down on his mean-spirited tweet with a follow up:

Lunar eclipses occur on average every two or three years and are visible to all the billions of people who can see the Moon when it happens. So, contrary to what you may have been told, lunar eclipses are not rare.

Yes, Mr “I used to be an astrophysicist”, we now know the frequency of lunar eclipses, what sort of eclipse will occur, total, partial penumbral, and can predict the occurrence and duration down to the minute, but have you taken the trouble in your arrogance to ask how we acquired that knowledge? 

Tyson is one of those science communicators, who looks down his nose at the occult sciences, and if he mentions them at all, it is only to sneer at them and the gullible people who believe in them. However, it is to the Babylonian belief in astrology that we owe our original scientific knowledge of the frequency of lunar eclipses. The moon played a central role in Babylonian omen astrology and as noted above, lunar eclipses were considered to presage danger or even death to the king. Because of this, beginning in about 700 BCE the Babylonians began a series of systematic accurate observations and records of eclipses which they continued for about seven hundred years. From this accumulated data they derived the saros series an accurate predictive cycle for eclipses. To quote Wikipedia:

A series of eclipses that are separated by one saros is called a saros series. It corresponds to:

  • 6,585.321347 solar days
  • 18.029 years
  • 223 synodic months
  • 241.999 draconic months
  • 18.999 eclipse years (38 eclipse seasons)
  • 238.992 anomalistic months

The 19 eclipse years means that if there is a solar eclipse (or lunar eclipse), then after one saros a new moon will take place at the same node of the orbit of the Moon, and under these circumstances another eclipse can occur.

The saros series is still used today to predict eclipses. This is a first-class example of how science works: make observations, collect data, look for patterns, derive a law.

I could go on about full moons and lunar eclipses throughout the history of astronomy, but I think I have made my point and will just briefly mention a couple of other examples.

One of the early scientific societies, the Lunar Society of Birmingham, known popularly as The Lunatics, which included Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgewood, and even Benjamin Franklin amongst its shifting membership over the years, derived its name from the fact that their meetings were always held at full moon, so that the members could safely find their way home. If a a lunar eclipse fell on a full moon, they would all, being amateur astronomers, have stayed at home to observe it.

As an American, one would have thought that Tyson might have mentioned one of the most famous lunar eclipse stories in history. On his fourth voyage in 1504, Columbus beached his last two remaining ships on the island of Jamaica on 25 June. The indigenous population of the island were reluctant after many months to continue feeding Columbus and his crew. He persuaded them to do so by using the ephemerides of Abraham Zacuto to predict the total lunar eclipse of 1 March 1504. 

Tyson could have used the total lunar eclipse of 16 May as a teaching moment to interest people for astronomy and its history, instead he chose to mock and ridicule those, who were looking forward to observing this celestial phenomenon. He has the cheek to call himself a science communicator, words fail me.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy

8 responses to “Is he  Moonstruck? 

  1. Ken Smith

    Yes, it is often the little,”ordinary” events in science and nature that give it beauty and attract us to its study. Bluebonnets flower in my front yard, a robin builds a nest on my front porch, the moon suddenly darkens and turns red. Let’s enjoy these samples of the beauty of our universe and use them to encourage its study!! (And yes, NdGT began his career as a promoter of science but he often now seems to be merely a promoter of NdGT. Sigh.)

  2. Michael Wright

    One of those minor moments of revelation happened when I realised that the moon-phase indicator on a clock or watch, nowadays a meaningless doohickey of only ornamental value, gave valuable information in the days before street lighting. I think it was reading about the Lunar Society that showed that.

    • Jim Harrison

      Abraham Lincoln defended a man accused of murder. A witness claimed to have witnessed the crime by the light of the full moon, but Lincoln impeached his testimony with the help of an almanac that showed the moon wasn’t up at the time. Lincoln’s client was duly acquitted. Many Americans know about this episode because it was depicted in a movie,

  3. Thony,
    I have a real problem with the idea that modern western astronomy/astrology owes its origin to Babylonia (alone). One major issue is that we have little evidence that cuneiform was ever intelligible to people of the classical Greek or classical Roman world, and we have contemporary Roman witness to what they represent as fact – namely that there was no ‘Scales’ in the zodiac until about the 2ndC AD.

    Since you’ve studied the origins of western astrology and astronomy, and even though it’s not Renaissance-era material, I’d be very glad if you would consider posting about the cross-over. Of course I’ve read the usual modern sources from van der Waerden onwards, including Neugebauer etc., and of course the two Davids are helpful, but this problem of “how could they know what the Babylonians wrote?” seems to me never to have clearly addressed by that usual “ancient Babylonia-to-Greece-to-Rome-medieval Latin Europe” scheme.

    • There is in fact an open question concerning how or when the Greeks obtained their knowledge of Babylonian astronomy and astrology, but on their own account they did. There are many instances of Greeks acknowledging their debt in these disciplines to the Chaldeans, however we have no specific knowledge as to who did the translations.

  4. Pingback: Allgemeines Live-Blog ab dem 23. März 2022 | Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

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