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CELESTIAL LEMON

The moon could make lunatics of both scientists and poets. Both train their gazes on it, and write about the meanings, and mystery, of what they see. Their two ways of seeing seem to be mutually exclusive. But the language of science and the language of poetry often seep into each other when it comes to looking at, and talking about, the moon. Planetary scientists from two American universities have published a paper in Nature that presents their findings on the unexpected shape of the moon. Because of its own gravity and the Earth’s, and because of the way it spins and revolves, the actual shape of the moon turns out to be at odds with how most people see it — or like to see it — from the Earth. It is an orb with flattened poles, a bulging middle and a whole series of oddities that are transformed as much by the human imagination as by tricks of light and distance into the shapes of perfection appearing to the unaided eye as the moon waxes and wanes.

The paper in Nature is the fruit of objective empirical observation. Yet, one of the scientists keeps urging his readers to use their imagination and ‘see’ the moon through a series of comparisons that brings to mind the poetic simile. The eye must move between the earthly and the heavenly for the moon to be imagined, first, as a “spinning water balloon” and then “a sort of a lemon shape with the long axis of the lemon pointing to the Earth”. The second image was famously anticipated in 1969 — the year of the first human landing on the moon — by the avant garde film-maker, Hollis Frampton, in his silent film, Lemon, where he lit and shot a lemon to make it look like the heavenly body that was on everybody’s mind that year. And, more than three centuries before Frampton and Apollo 11, when a great and heretical poet wanted to pay homage to a great and heretical scientist, it was again the moon that shone before the poet’s eye, mingling poetry with astronomy and theology — all three as radical as they could get at that moment in history. For Milton, Satan’s shield in Paradise Lost was like the moon that Galileo viewed through his “Optic Glass” to find “new Lands, Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe”.

The moon’s capacity to command the dual worship of science and poetry, its peculiar ‘pull’ — at once physical and romantic, inward and distant — on the Earth and its inhabitants, finds perhaps its most beautiful fictional rendering in Italo Calvino’s short story of the mid-Sixties, “The Distance of the Moon”. Like all the other stories in his Cosmicomics, it is an imaginative rendering of real astrophysics. It tells of the moving away of the moon, millions of years ago, from its much greater proximity to the Earth, and of the celestial and emotional upheavals caused by this movement. From being enormous and close — “like a black umbrella blown by the wind” — and proffering its “moon-milk” for the nurture of earthlings, it suddenly turns into “that flat, remote circle”, creating for human observers the necessary distance across which they must learn to look at, and long for, the moon.