The not-so-super moon

I was in college when Halley’s comet came by. In the media, the comet was getting star treatment, but the comet wasn’t following the script. It made a pathetic display, fizzing at a level barely visible to the naked eye. I went to the campus observatory where a astronomy professor gave us binoculars and told us where to look. “That’s it?” said my friend when she finally found the faint greasy smudge with the famous name.

Astronomy is a funny game. It’s a cerebral activity that masquerades as a visual feast. The pictures we see from the Hubble Space Telescope set our expectation for what we will see when we peek into a telescope. But the Hubble Telescope is 350 miles above the atmosphere and it’s got an eyeball seven feet across. Nothing you see in a telescope will remotely resemble what it sees. Buy a telescope and you’ll mostly be looking at greasy smudges or bright points of light that all look more or less the same. This is why most telescopes end up in the basement.

If you can get excited by the science, then it all becomes great fun. My favorite example of astronomy as a head game is the AAVSO. That’s the American Association of Variable Star Observers based near me in Cambridge. Technology has made their job a lot easier, but these people used to stare at the same star for hours on end looking for barely noticeable changes in brightness. Train-spotting suddenly seems thrilling by comparison. But again, the science is quite interesting.

Given all this, I was pleased to see physicist Tom Murphy of the Do the Math blog addressing the issue of SUPER! MOON! DISAPPOINTMENT! The last full moon was one in which a close moon coincided with a slow news day, and so, improbably, the supermoon landed on page one, thereby leading to a sunset chorus of “That’s it?” A slightly large moon is cool, but it’s no great thrill compared to an average moon.

Hype is the enemy of satisfaction. Low expectation is the gateway to bliss.

You know what’s cool? The moon.

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