Posts Tagged The Moon

The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

29 October 2011

Imagine that you wake up one morning, sit at your computer, and you are bombarded with links to a developing story from a major news outlet: Stephen Hawking, by making novel use of Cambridge University’s new quantum supercomputer to analyze data from SETI’s telescope array, has discerned that the universe is awash with signals from intelligent life. It reads like a regular science story, at first, but soon it is revealed that Hawking and his colleagues have tapped into an extra-terrestrial television transmission, and are even now watching, breathless, as the first, dream-like images of alien civilizations display themselves on the Q-computer’s tiny monitor.

You and your friends refresh your browsers compulsively, talking over each new description that emerges of strange alien races and the exotic landscapes they inhabit, as gleaned from upon the wacky sitcoms and low-budget reality shows that they are indiscriminately beaming into space. Then, questions are raised, skepticism emerges. You begin to have doubts. Eventually, you realize that you have been taken in by a clever hoax—you ought to have known better than to trust Fox News, after all—but despite the deception, you find that you cannot help but appreciate how, for one shining moment, people everywhere had set aside their petty rivalries and believed in marvels from above.

Such is how the people of New York City must have felt during the summer of 1835 when the New York Sun published a series of articles describing the startling lunar discoveries that had recently been made by the famous astronomer John Herschel from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Using cutting-edge “hydro-oxygen magnifiers,” Herschel had developed a powerful new telescope that could achieve an astounding magnification of 42,000x—enough to resolve objects on the lunar surface as small as 18 inches in diameter—and project the images onto the wall of his observatory. Purporting to be a reprint from a supplement to the (non-existent) Edinburgh Journal of Science penned by Herschel’s assistant, Dr. Andrew Grant, it contained just the right mixture popular science buzzwords and technical minutia to render itself plausible.


The Moonflowers Bloom at Night

6 August 2011

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton and Charles Robertson

Datura inoxia -- Photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson


THE sun has burned his way across the sky,
And sunk in sultry splendor; now the earth
Lies spent and gray, wrapped in the grateful dusk;
Stars tremble into sight, and in the west
The curved moon glows faintly. ‘T is the hour!
See! Flower on flower the buds unfold, until
The air is filled with odors exquisite
And amorous sighs, and all the verdurous gloom
Is starred with silvery disks.
                            Oh, Flower of Dreams! —
Of lover’s dreams, where bliss and anguish meet;
Dreams of dead joys, and joys that ne’er have been;
Keenest of all, the joys that ne’er shall be!            

                                    —Julia Schayer 

The common name “moonflower” has been applied to a variety of fragrant, vespertine plants that ranged across Europe and North America during the Victorian period. One in particular is Datura inoxia, which evokes the name not only for its ethereal white, night-blooming flowers, but for the deadly madness it produces when ingested.

Like all members its genus, Datura inoxia is a potent deliriant that contains malignant alkaloids chemically similar to those of deadly nightshade. Its effects include acute psychosis, lasting visual and spatial distortion, itching and dryness, disruption of the urinary tract, amnesia, and, all too often, death. In spite of a history of shamanic use, it is notorious, even among psychedelic luminaries, for producing the sort of drug trip that leads to such questions as “How did I get here?” and “What chewed off my fingers?” With its toothed flower and thorny fruit, D. inoxia signals danger to those who would unlock its secrets.