Last week, we talked about perhaps the greatest of all “fake news” about the moon. And, no, it’s not the claim that the Apollo lunar landings were faked.
Starting on Aug. 25, 1835, a series of six pseudo-astronomical articles were published in the New York Sun. Written by reporter Richard Adams Locke, they claimed to describe observations of the moon in far-away South Africa by renowned astronomer John Herschel. The series of six installments were purportedly reprinted from a defunct scientific journal called the Edinburgh Journal of Science.
The series, supposedly written by Herschel’s non-existent traveling companion John Grant, began with a detailed description of a telescope of unbelievably enormous size and power. However, weird and wonderful discoveries were hinted at. The tease was on, and the Sun’s readership eagerly awaited the next installment.
Locke did not disappoint them. However, the second article in the series, published the next day, continued to tease the reader for a bit. The observatory in which the telescope was housed is described to loving, intricate detail.
Then, in the midst of a description of observed lunar geology, the writer mentioned, almost in passing, a field covered with a dark, red flower “precisely similar to the Papaver Rhoeas, or rose-poppy of our sublunary cornfields.” The article did not fail to note the moment’s significance: “This was the first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men.”
Minimally, life needs water and air to survive. The moon apparently had an atmosphere capable of sustaining life. Thus, the discovery of water soon followed.
They saw beaches surrounding lakes “as blue as that of the deep ocean,” and in other locations, they saw signs of tides.
The search for animal life was on. Next, the observers noticed obelisk-like structures made of amethyst. Only intelligent creatures could have created them, but none were observed — yet.
Shifting their gaze to the valleys, they saw bison-like creatures with flaps over their eyes to protect them from the “extremes of light and dark” found on the moon.
Next, they observed a “monstrous” goat-like creature that resembled Earth’s mythical unicorn. As they looked at a river meandering down a lunar valley, they saw a species of pelican and white crane.
The next day’s article, the third in the series, began by again teasing the reader, this time with a detailed description of enormous extinct volcanoes. In the fertile land around one volcano, Herschel and Grant observed a species of “biped beaver,” one of which was carrying a child in its arms.
The fourth essay began, as usual, with a description of lunar geology and a verdant valley. In it is present a large flock of sheep that were, somewhat implausibly, identical with sheep on Earth. Much to the disappointment of the observers, no shepherd was seen.
However, soon thereafter, our intrepid observers noticed a group of ape-like creatures flying above the landscape on bat wings. When they alighted, they walked on two legs. Grant comments, “In general symmetry of body and limbs they were infinitely superior to the orang outang; so much so, that, but for their long wings, Lieut. Drummond said they would look as well on a parade ground as some of the old cockney militia!”
They appeared to be engaged in conversation and were organized into family groups. Here the writer purportedly left out detail for modesty’s sake, or so he claimed. He wrote that “they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures, notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.”
The fifth essay provides the ultimate teaser. A flaming mountain was discovered. Around it were hills constructed of white marble or semi-translucent crystal.
Here then was a resort area. The lunar surface goes through long periods of darkness. The as-yet-unseen intelligent creatures must come here to escape the long, lunar night.
And in the midst of those hills, Herschel discovered a lunar temple of enormous size and surpassing beauty. It was built of polished sapphire and “displayed myriad points of golden light twinkling and scintillating in the sunbeams.”
Its roof was cleverly constructed to reflect the light of the flaming mountain nearby into gigantic pillars of fire.
Here then was a sign of a highly intelligent species, but the reader would, of course, have to wait for the final installment to see it.
That essay, which appeared on August 31, began by describing a slightly more advanced version of the “bat-men.” They were slightly more evolved in their social behavior, but they were clearly not the creators of the temple. We are being teased again.
And then, another tease. The observatory is almost completely destroyed by fire. In the interim, Herschel observed the planet Saturn with a smaller telescope, and the essay stretches out toward a conclusion as the writer describes Herschel’s observations in great and turbid detail.
Weeks later, they were again ready to observe the moon. A third species of bat-men was discovered. They were as beautiful as the angels depicted in human art. Their social order and customs were similar to the other bat-men, but “their works of art were more numerous, and displayed a proficiency of skill quite incredible to all except actual observers.”
And there the description ends! The author modestly deferred to Herschel, who will eventually publish his own account. We have been teased one last time.
To add to the scientific veracity of the series, Locke appends a note saying that “forty pages of illustrative and mathematical notes” have been omitted from the original scientific article” because they “would greatly enhance the size and cost of this work, without commeasurably adding to its general interest.”
Public interest in the articles almost certainly helped the Sun’s circulation at a time of crisis. It survived afterward for over a century until 1950 when it was absorbed into another newspaper.
The series fooled almost everyone, including a team of Yale astronomers, who showed up at the Sun’s office looking for a copy of the original journal articles and the 40 pages of scientific notes that the Sun claimed existed but were conveniently excluded from their reprint. The Yale astronomers went back to Connecticut sadly disappointed.
When John Herschel finally heard about the hoax, he was initially amused. How could anyone believe such balderdash? However, his good humor turned to annoyance. As the months passed, people kept bothering him about the thing.
Whether the Sun actually issued a retraction is an open question. According to the History Channel, they issued one on September 16, just two weeks and two days after the final article was published. However, other sources claim the story was never officially retracted.
It took almost five years for Locke to admit that he was the actual author of the deception.
In any case, the lesson is clear. Be skeptical of absurd claims. The Earth is not flat. NASA is not hiding alien corpses at Area 51. There is no gigantic left-wing or right-wing or bat-wing conspiracy to keep the truth from the American public.
NASA did not fake the moon landings. Humans did indeed walk on the surface of the moon. Revel in that great human accomplishment. The evidence will be laid out before you frequently in the coming days, I’m sure, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Remember, apparent sincerity does not constitute certainty. I am reminded Ronald Reagan’s old dictum on the subject. The key to success in politics is sincerity, he said. If you can fake that, you have it made.
Above all, remember that belief does not constitute proof of anything. Believe in your God if you will. Believe in your country. Believe in your family. For all other matters, demand clear and convincing evidence, and even question that evidence.
In a world where anybody can claim anything and receive a million “likes” on social media, skepticism is the order of the day.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.