The Moon is not made of cheese, though you probably suspected that already.
Instead, says astronaut Buzz Aldrin who should know, it is mostly composed of greyish dust that smells of extinguished fireworks and makes your eyes water.
This doesn’t sound exactly attractive, but don’t be fooled by first impressions. Were it not for the Moon, there would be no Earth. Or to be more precise, there would be no us on Earth.
In exact but poetic prose, science journalist Rebecca Boyle explains how many millennia ago — the timescale is still sketchy — the Moon was formed from the same cosmic debris that made our world. Thanks to its gravitational impact, the Moon was responsible for pulling early fish-like creatures out of the Earth’s oceans and on to the shore.
From these developed every creeping, crawling thing that inhabits our planet, including ourselves. It is enough to give you nightmares.
A book by science journalist Rebecca Boyle investigates the old story about the links between the Full Moon and madness — the so-called ‘lunatic’ effect
Buzz Aldrin famously said the Moon is mostly composed of greyish dust that smells of extinguished fireworks and makes your eyes water
The Moon is also Earth’s timekeeper and continues to give us not only our days, but our months, seasons and years. You may have thought the Sun was in charge but, Boyle, explains, it is the pull of the Moon’s gravity on the Earth that holds our planet in place.
Without the Moon stabilising our tilt, at 23.4 degrees, we would wobble wildly, dramatically affecting our seasons and climate. In this scenario our planet would move from no tilt (meaning no seasons) to a large tilt (extreme weather and even ice ages). It is thanks to the Moon that the Earth remains, at least for now, more or less habitable.
Pre-historic people weren’t aware of what went on in outer space of course, but they had worked out that the lunar cycle — the length of time it takes for the Moon to circle the Earth — governed not only their days but the seasons, too.
One of the most exciting passages in Boyle’s book concerns the fairly recent discovery of a series of 10,000-year-old pits dug near Crathes Castle, Aberdeenshire.
They are a sort of upside-down Stonehenge (but 5,000 years older), a Mesolithic lunar timepiece that allowed hunter-gatherers to work out which week each year the salmon would be leaping in the River Dee, or when dinner, in the form of red deer, might trot over the horizon.
And that’s not forgetting the influence on the regular arrival of new Mesolithic babies to be nurtured into a new generation of hunter-gatherers. Though more research needs to be done, it looks as though in communities where there was not much natural light such as Northern Scotland, women tended to begin their periods at the Full Moon.
This meant that they were most fertile at the New Moon, that dark time of the month when early man was less likely to be out hunting and gathering and more likely to be at home making Stone Age love.
For those interested in testing if this phenomenon still works, it just so happens to be a New Moon today. Even now, in our age of electric light pollution, there is some evidence to suggest that women are still more likely to begin their menstrual cycle at the Full Moon.
There is emerging evidence that aneurysms are more likely to pop at the Full or New Moon, because it is at these points in its 29-day cycle the Moon is most closely aligned with the Sun
Boyle also investigates the old story about the links between the Full Moon and madness — the so-called ‘lunatic’ effect. It turns out there is something in it: a 1990s survey reported that 81 per cent of mental health practitioners have observed a correlation between odd behaviour and certain times of the month.
At the very least, suggests Boyle, many of us find it hard to sleep when there is a Full Moon, which may well result in the kind of risky behaviour — driving too fast, drinking too much, yelling at annoying strangers — that lands us in A & E.
There is also emerging evidence that aneurysms are more likely to pop at either the Full or New Moon, thanks to the fact that it is at these points in its 29-day cycle that the Moon is most closely aligned with the Sun, which means that it exerts its strongest gravitational pull.
Given the extraordinary power that the Moon has on our everyday experience here on Earth, it is no wonder that earlier civilisations treated it not as a ‘withered, sun-seared peach pit’, to quote one early Apollo astronaut who orbited without landing, but as nothing less than a full-blown deity.
Particularly fascinating is the tale of Enheduanna, the Bronze Age high priestess who used hymns to the Moon gods to bind the city-states of Sumeria into the world’s first empire.
There have been many, many books about the Moon, but Rebecca Boyle’s feels especially timely. As the geo-political balance of our world shifts, the ‘space race’ is being re-run with new players including Japan and India. This time around, though, the aim is not so much patriotic flag planting as economic advantage.
The Moon’s soil contains oxygen, silicon, aluminium and iron, all of which can be refined into valuable things such as fuel, building materials and, ironically, solar panels.
Whichever nation manages to extract and exploit these first, suggests Boyle, will hold the balance of power in what is shaping up to be the next Cold War.