Date: April 1, 2011

Title: The Great Moon Hoax

Podcaster: Rob Knop

Organization: Quest University Canada

Links: My home page :

Description: In 1835, a New York newspaper started reporting startling results coming from John Herschel, an astronomer in England (and the son of the famous William Herschel). There was life on the Moon! And a civilization! It was a tale worthy of an April First podcast about astronomy, and many people were indeed fooled.

Bio: Rob Knop obtained a PhD in Physics from Caltech in 1997. He then worked with the Supernova Cosmology Project and was part of the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. After six years as an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, he worked in the computer industry for two years. He now teaches physics the new college Quest Unviersity in British Columbia. He gives regular astronomy talks in Second Life in association with the Meta-Institute of Computational Astronomy.

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Hello, and thank you for listening to 365 Days of Astronomy! This is Rob Knop, Professor of Physical Science at Quest University Canada.

It being April Fools Day, I thought it appropriate to talk about one of the greatest astronomical hoaxes of all time. Of course, sadly, today when people hear the words the “Great Moon Hoax”, they think of a more modern hoax– the hoax, evidently believed by some who perpetrate it, that says we never landed on the Moon. The perpetrators of this hoax call the Moon landings a hoax, so I suppose the real hoax here is really a sort of meta-hoax. Of course, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, we did in fact send several men to the Moon, and indeed scientific research continues now on things brought back by and left behind by the Apollo astronauts. But, that’s a topic for another day.

The Great Moon Hoax I’m talking about is from the first half of the 19th century. At the time, one of the most famous observational astronomers was Sir John Herschel. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because two of the most famous observational astronomers of all time were the brother-sister team of William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. William Herschel was the father of Sir John Herschel. In 1835, the New York Sun, a relatively young newspaper, published a series of articles over the course of a week reporting startling new astronomical observations supposedly made by Sir John Herschel on a trip down to the Cape of Good Hope. Sir John had created a new telescope of unprecedented power, the story went, that had allowed him to make incredibly detailed observations of the life that was on the Moon.

Of course, today, we know that the Moon is an airless, dead rock. The notion of creatures tooling around on the surface of the moon is absurd. (That is, unless they’re wearing space suits. Then they can collect rocks, hop about, plant flags, and even perhaps play a little golf.) In the 19th century, however, the nature of the other worlds in our Solar System was not understood nearly as well as it is today. As such, the idea that there might be life and even a civilization on the Moon wasn’t nearly as absurd a notion as it is today.

The New York Sun articles claimed to be reprints from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. These articles were supposedly written by an associate of Herschel, who was writing a popularization of papers that Herschel would later have published by the Royal Society. The articles started with reports of Herschel’s powerful new telescope, claiming that it could even image bugs on the surface of the Moon. In the greatest tradition of technobabble, the telescope supposedly used something called a “hydro-oxygen microscope”. While it sounds like this might have something to do with water, in fact it was supposedly able to overcome the basic laws of physics with regard to light collection and diffraction. The articles didn’t quite state it that way, but for a telescope of the reported size to make the observations it was supposed to have made, something would have needed to overcome these limitations– this “water microscope”, or inverse phasing polarity reversal of the Heisenberg warp core generators, or whatever it was. Indeed, upon coming across this discovery, one Sir David Brewster said to Sir John Herschel, “You the Man!” Well, I must admit, that’s something of a modernization; in fact, the actual text reported in the first New York Sun article is, “Thou art the man!”

The telescope established, the next article in the Sun detailed plants and animals on the Moon– herds of things like bison, blue unicorn/goats, and even spherical amphibians rolling about the beach in an ominous foreshadowing of “Rover” from the 1960’s cult classic “The Prisoner”. Never mind that the Moon doesn’t have beaches! That’s our modern sensibilities again infringing on what anybody can plainly see by looking at a map of the Moon: there is, after all, a big “Sea of Tranquility” there! Subsequent articles would detail other birds, horned animals, and even what looked just like common sheep. And, coming back to tranquility, these sheep were able to safely graze, for, I quote, “I need not say how desirous we were of finding shepherds to these flocks, and even a man with blue apron and rolled up sleeves would have been a welcome sight to us, if not to the sheep; but they fed in peace, lords of their own pastures, without either protector or destroyer in human shape.” The Moon, evidently, was a peaceful place, where the lion– should there be such a thing up there– might lay down with the lamb.

The most important “discovery” made by Herschel with his Flux Capacitor Telescope, however, was of furry bat-people who populated the Moon. The article reported that they were first seen flying gently down from cliffs and alighting on the ground. And, then, to quote: “Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified…. They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of their shoulders to the calves of their legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orangutan, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expansion of forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw, and by lips far more human than those of any species of simian genus.”

The article went on to describe the behavior of these bat-people, and made it clear that Herschel and his companions were convinced that they were rational beings. Subsequent articles would go on to describe what the observers thought were higher orders of beings. Why were they? Well, typical of the racism of the day, part of the evidence was that they had a lighter coloring. However, they were also observed in peaceful and altruistic behavior. Quoting, “They were chiefly engaged in eating a large yellow fruit like a gourd, sections of which they divided with their fingers, and ate with rather uncouth voracity, throwing away the rind. A smaller red fruit, shaped like a cucumber, which we had often seen pendant from trees having a broad dark leaf, was also lying in heaps in the centre of several of the festive groups; but the only use they appeared to make of it was sucking its juice, after rolling it between the palms of their hands and nibbling off an end. They seemed eminently happy, and even polite, for we saw, in many instances, individuals sitting nearest these piles of fruit, select the largest and brightest specimens and throw them archwise across the circle to some opposite friend or associate who extracted the nutriment from those scattered around him, and which were frequently not a few.”

The article does go on to note that despite the presence of a previously described large sapphire temple, the astronomers did not see any of these bat-people engaged in any work of industry or art. They were, to use a conceit of the time, noble savages living on the plenty of their land, happy and amicable. Echoing the safety of the sheep mentioned earlier, the article notes, quoting, “The universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures, and the apparent absence of every carnivorous or ferocious creatures, gave us the most refined pleasure, and doubly endeared us to this lovely nocturnal companion of our larger, but less favored world.”

Alas, after six articles, there were no more reports of the Paradise on our sister world, for the astronomers left their telescope open to the Sun, and sunlight focused by the lens caused a fire. While there is some discussion of observations of Saturn and its rings (including fanciful things such as volcanos on the surface of Saturn), there was no further information about the Moon creatures.

People were quite taken by this story, and even after it had been widely recognized as a hoax there were still some who believed it and wanted to learn more about it. That nobody *today* believes it does give me some hope that eventually the few conspiracy theorists we have left who think that the 20th century Moon missions were faked will eventually give way to reality. There was one person who was quite surprised to learn about these stories. That was, of course, Sir John Herschel, the astronomer to whom all of these discoveries were attributed. He only learned about them later, hearing about these New York Sun stories. Doubtless, Sir John would have loved to have a telescope of the power described in the stories! What might he have done with it? We can only speculate, but we can be pretty sure he wouldn’t have observed a civilization on the Moon.

Interestingly, the New York Sun never published a retraction or admitted that the series of articles was a hoax. The stories, although elaborate fiction, were published as if they were real. It has been suggested that this was all part of a disingenuous plot to increase the circulation of the newspaper, and indeed, at least for a time, it worked. In August of 2010, there was an editorial the New York Sun reporting that what with the 175th anniversary of the hoax coming up, perhaps it was finally time for the New York Sun to set the record straight and publish a formal retraction, admitting the articles were hoaxes. Even this editorial, however, did not quite publish a retraction. To quote it, “So let us just say that one of the things a long newspaper life has taught us about corrections is that, obligatory as they may be when the truth is out, one doesn’t want to rush into them. For the moment, let us just say that we’re aware of the claim there are no lunar man-bats, neither on the Moon nor here. Rest assured that we’re looking into it. You can check back in this space in 25 years.” Of course, at this point, everybody recognizes that the editor is writing it all in good humor.

Happy April Fools Day!

End of podcast:

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