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Epic Moon: A History of Lunar Exploration in the Age of the Telescope Review


For the overwhelming majority of human history, the only way to explore the moon has been by eye, joined in the last few centuries by its glass auxiliary, the telescope. The Moon, by virtue of being by far the closest celestial body to humanity, has been an invaluable source of knowledge in our theorizing on the composition of the universe, a reflection of humanity's fascinations, hopes, and dreams for the star, and an obsessive piece of interest that has been charted, mapped, and drawn to incredible detail. This is the focus of the brilliant book "Epic Moon: A History of Lunar Exploration in the Age of the Telescope," which combines a masterful look at the scientific aspect of lunar exploration and the technical means of the telescopes which enabled it, the legions of curious, often quixotic, and colorful astronmers who spent their lives in long travails studying the lunar surface, and the theorizing and cultural accompaniment that put the moon into human understanding.

The search for ever more complete, complex, and detailed lunar maps was one of the obsessions of lunar astronomers.

The search for ever more complete, complex, and detailed lunar maps was one of the obsessions of lunar astronomers.

The book's content follows a chronological study of the Moon, starting out with an initial description of some of the ideas of the Moon held in ancient times (such as the belief that the features in the Moon were in fact a reflection of the Earth, utilized even by some map makers to draw unknown continents), before moving onto the age of telescopes in earnest. Here, it mostly follows the stories of individual astronomers, such as Hyugens, Schmidt, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, Heinrich von Madler, Johann Schmidt and many others. It tracks what their scientific contributions were to lunar exploration, some of their biographic details, and the evolving state of lunar science over time, with a rich amount of illustrations, the important moments of lunar exploration such as one of the great obsessions of lunar research, the belief in a changing moon which meant that proposed meteor impacts or volcanic eruptions have attracted vast interest, and the theorizing upon how the moon was formed and its geologic structures such as craters and mountains.

Such an impressively detailed, complex, and exhaustively researched book deserves the highest accolades. William P. Sheehan and Thomas A. Dobbins put in a massive amount of work for this excellently illustrated, lengthy, and encyclopedically complete - but still very readable - work that covers the last several centuries of humanity's theorizing, examination, and study of the moon, told with a charming list of brilliant and colorful lunar astronomers.

Of course, the book is somewhat Euro-centric. This makes sense since the Europeans invented the telescope and were the ones who did the overwhelming amount of astronomical work, up until the very recent present, that took advantage of this new invention. In such a sense, being Euro-centric is simply a reflection of reality. But it would have been a very interesting feature to include the moon theorizing of other cultures, be they Islamic, with the idea of Muhammad splitting the moon in half being a famous example of Islamic religious myths concerning the moon, China with its moon goddess Chang'e, Indian, Ethiopian Japanese, the tribes and civilizations of America and Africa - those would have provided a great and fascinating degree of universalism. It could have been further aided by examining the reaction of these civilizations to the advent of European discoveries about the moon - but I do understand that this is tangential, difficult to achieve, and would be better dealt with in a book on the cultural elements of the book.

A drawing of the Chinese moon goddess Chang'e - while the book discusses European traditional ideas of the moon, it doesn't mention myths and traditions from other regions

A drawing of the Chinese moon goddess Chang'e - while the book discusses European traditional ideas of the moon, it doesn't mention myths and traditions from other regions

But one craves this because the book does such a great job on the subject of the cultural elements of the moon, the interest of broader society, visions of the moon such as the great mountains and spires that plaster of pairs models of it created in the early 20th century, or works such as Jules Verne's Voyage to the Moon inspired, and the endless list of flamboyant and colorful astronomers who had such diverse theories on the moon. This extends back as far as ancient time, with the reflection of the Earth assumed to be the Moon's features, and shows the way in which the authors Sheehan and Dobbins have written such an exhaustive and complete work.

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Placing this into a framework is well accomplished by the very good technical aspects of the Moon's exploration as shown in the book. The astronomers, their telescopes, lives, observations: these are done in magnificent detail. The telescopes and how they related to lunar exploration, be it the aerial telescopes of the 18th century, or the massive, lengthy tubed 17th century telescopes, the refractors and degrees of magnification and use: these are not only presented, but the style of description is such that they are understandable for the average neophyte who otherwise knows little about astronomy. Their linking to the task of lunar exploration is brilliantly done: the book discusses what sort of magnification was needed for lunar work (pointing out that an apparently commonly suggested necessary minimum magnification of x200 was not necessary for many of the astronomers who did work with substantially less powerful equipment), and the ways in which different types of equipment constrained or enabled the astronomers. The astronomers themselves are the starring characters of the cast, as they were an incredibly colorful bunch, and astronomers like Schmidt, the famous 19th century German Selesian (moon studier), with his incredible industriousness but his flights of fancy, really leap to life. Their writings, their quirks, their lives, their obsessions, the book does them justice and helps to make these unique men companions of the reader on his journey into the discovery of the moon.

That they are treated with the respect due to them in not simply writing a book of the discovery of what is "correct," but rather the general history of scientific discourse, is another great mark in the book's favor. As the author notes, the French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace determined what is ultimately the correct theory of planetary formation, with the creation of planets out of the accumulated matter of nebula, although there was still substantial work left to refine and develop his theory to fit the huge number of different stellar phenomenon that we can find - such as the moon itself, which went through many theories concerning its development until the current theory, that of an impact from another planet creating the moon, has entered widespread acceptance. But as the book points out, it is not just a history of finding what is the "final" word in science, a Whiggish history, but rather exploring the way in which the discourse and the exploration of the moon changed over time, with all of its errors, ruts, follies, triumphs, backsteps, and achievements.

Overall, this is an excellent, readable, highly informative, authoritative, and very well illustrated book. It is sure to give a great grasp of the development of humanity's understanding of the moon over time, a brilliant portrait of the scientists and astronomers who studied the moon, good technical understanding, and relate the controversies and debates which have dogged the scientific field of lunar studies. For anyone interested in the modern history of lunar optical observation, this is the book to get.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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