As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches, I am reminded of the weird Apollo 11 claims that refuse to die.
Time and again, Internet crazies declare that the lunar landings never happened. They are absolutely convinced that 125,000 NASA scientists, engineers, and subcontractors are engaged in a vast conspiracy to keep us from realizing that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and 10 other American astronauts never walked on the moon. They seem to believe sincerely that the landings were “fake news.”
I will not bother to refute those allegations because others have done such an excellent job. For example, I have nothing to add to Phil Plait’s detailed refutation, which can be found at badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html.
Instead, I will note that real fake news about lunar exploration is a lot more fun. Last week, I wrote about William Pickering’s claim, during the early part of the 20th century, that he observed swarms of insects migrating across the lunar crater Eratosthenes.
But that bit of lunacy pales in comparison to what is certainly the greatest lunar hoax of all time. It also ranks among the greatest of journalistic pranks.
In 1835, the New York Sun claimed that one of the greatest astronomers of the time, Sir John Herschel, had observed an intelligent lunar civilization consisting of human-like creatures with bat-like wings. Apparently, many in the Sun’s readership believed him.
How is that possible? Read on, fellow and sister Fake-o-nauts.
First, some background. The year was 1835, a time uncannily similar to our own. Mass communication was on the rise. Instead of the Internet, America was witnessing an explosion of newspapers dubbed the “penny-press.” Today, we might today call them “the tabloids.”
As the name suggests, they were inexpensive enough for working families to afford. Also, they relied more heavily on vivid storytelling than more staid newspapers like the New York Times. They still purported to present the news — and often did — but they did so in a lively, energetic way.
One such penny-press paper was the New York Sun. It had begun its run just two years earlier in 1835. In those days, big cities like New York had several daily papers, and New York had 11 of them when the Sun was born. The competition was fierce, and they often struggled to survive. Success was measured by daily sales.
As a result, sensationalism ruled the day. What better way than to do a little satire, to make a little fun of the outrageous claims made by politicians and some scientists alike? And if some credulous reader believed the satire was the actual truth, so much the better for daily sales.
Astronomy was easy pickings for such satiric jabs. Groundbreaking telescopic observations were mixed in with outrageous claims, and it was often difficult to separate the sheep from the goats.
On one hand, astronomers were using larger and larger telescopes to systematically explore the universe and map the sky like never before. New solar-system denizens, called asteroids, were being discovered.
At the same time, Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, a respected professor of astronomy at Munich University, was claiming to have observed vegetation, walls, roads, fortifications, and even cities on the moon. On the basis of such dubious observations and others like them, Thomas Dick, an enormously popular science writer, estimated that the entire solar system contained about 22 trillion intelligent inhabitants and that the moon was home to 4.2 billion of them.
If our current dependence on social media proves anything, logically refuting such claims is not an effective way of countering them.
And thus it was that Richard Adams Locke, a reporter for the Sun, concocted a series of six satiric pieces about the moon. He attributed the articles to a fictional character, Dr. Andrew Grant, who was at the time supposedly traveling with astronomer Sir John Herschel.
To add to the articles’ authenticity, Locke wrote that “Grant’s” essays were reprints of a long journal article published in a “Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science.” The Edinburgh Journal of Science had ceased to publish years before, but there was no way that most readers would know that.
The choice of Herschel was a clever one. He was the son of William Herschel, the discoverer of the planet Uranus. However, he was also a respected astronomer in his own right. He had drawn and published the most detailed maps of the moon to date, for example.
Not so coincidentally, Herschel was at the time on a trip to South Africa to create an observatory with a very large telescope. Communication to remote areas was difficult in those days, and observatories by their nature are set up in isolated locations. Herschel would not see the articles until a long time after they were published.
The first installment was published on Aug. 25.
Locke was clever enough to build suspense by saving the most startling of Herschel’s ersatz observations until later articles. Instead, he began by describing the construction of Herschel’s telescope lens. It was an unbelievable 24 feet in diameter. As was the practice at the time, the lens was a “doublet” made of two separate lenses sandwiched together.
The finished lens was cumbersome but startlingly powerful. As the first article rather dubiously asserts, “The weight of this ponderous lens was 14,826 lbs. or nearly seven tons after being polished; and its estimated magnifying power 42,000 times.”
In retrospect, it’s difficult to fathom how Locke managed to get away with such absurd claims. Such enormous, yet thin, discs of glass would collapse under their own weight. Such high magnifications are impossible because of the distorting effects of Earth’s moving atmosphere. But never mind. The dubious details were included to impress the reader with the writer’s technical expertise.
Locke even includes a long passage describing Gruithuisen’s weird claims about lunar fortifications and the like, but he attributes them to a non-existent astronomer named Frauenhofer.
In other words, Locke provides sufficient hints that the article is satiric, but only a reader with more than a passing knowledge about optics and astronomy will realize it.
By the end of the first article, the lens has not even made the journey to South Africa, its intended location. However, wonderful discoveries are hinted at in the next installment.
I’d criticize such an obvious tease, except that I’m doing the same thing right now. Stay tuned until next week.
In the meantime, if you’d like to read the articles for yourself, you can find them at http://hoaxes.org/text/display/the_great_moon_hoax_of_1835_text/.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.