Fight, moon!

Spheres
Aristotelian spheres

Our recent lunar eclipse was nothing that the Franks hadn’t seen before. The learned and literate believed in the Aristotelian egocentric “concentric spheres” model of the cosmos, which held sway until the 16th century. While we chuckle at the spheres, the model does put the moon in orbit around the earth, and thus does explain that eclipses are caused by the intersection of the earth, moon, and sun.

The understanding of a lunar eclipse by the common people was far more lively.

The common folk believed that the moon was under attack by some malevolent spirit or demon. Before you chuckle at that, consider the evidence: the moon, on the night it is full, so powerfully bright and white,  is suddenly and unexpectedly turning an ominous red. This mystifying transition happens slowly, yet inexorably, turning the moon, normally a festive friend, the only real light after sundown, into a shadow of its former self.

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This would have meant nothing to Charlemagne

There you are in the year 774, court astronomer to Charles, son of Pepin, and you have some exciting news. You burst in and tell him, “Terra ingenti impetu gamma radios ictus est, duo facit atros concursu!”1.I have no idea how accurate Google Translate is with a sentence like this – they only added Latin a year or two ago, and of course modern scientific terms and concepts don’t always come across in ancient languages. Although I remember a column in the NY Times, decades ago, describing the use of Latin for terms like space shuttle. Which, in finding it now, makes me realize that I embarrassed myself not long after the article came out. He would have looked at you blankly, and, depending on the king’s mood, either laughed at you or had you tossed into the rain to make your way back across the Channel to your cold Irish monastery.

What else could he do? You had just informed him that the Earth had been hit by a tremendous gamma ray burst, caused by the collision of two black holes. It hardly makes sense today.

Scientific American has the scoop, although the news was carried fairly widely. Not completely relevant to anything here, but interesting nonetheless.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I have no idea how accurate Google Translate is with a sentence like this – they only added Latin a year or two ago, and of course modern scientific terms and concepts don’t always come across in ancient languages. Although I remember a column in the NY Times, decades ago, describing the use of Latin for terms like space shuttle. Which, in finding it now, makes me realize that I embarrassed myself not long after the article came out.