It can move oceans; drive the rhythms of human life; turn a dying leaf to pure silver. It is the mystical night light, the breeder of fantastic tales: The moon is a spaceship; it is teeming with life; it turns men to wolves; it can make you crazy.
And this year, on what is going to be a different Halloween across the country in the shadow of the pandemic, the moon is assuming the role of star of the night sky.
That’s quite a resume for a brooding hunk of rock, alternately oven-hot and beyond frigid, with about as much atmosphere as an empty football stadium.
But the moon’s hold on the human imagination is more than understandable, says Walter Freeman, a physics professor at Syracuse University: “It’s beautiful. ... A reminder of the splendor of the night sky.”
For the first time in this millennium, a full moon will coincide with Halloween around here. Full moons occur on Oct. 31 in roughly 19-year cycles, but the one in 2001 didn’t reach 100% illumination in the Eastern time zone until the early morning hours of Nov. 1.
On Saturday evening the moon will be making its first appearance above the horizon at 6:19 p.m., right around what would-be trick-or-treat rush hour time in a “normal” year (which automatically eliminates 2020). That’s appropriate given that the full moon has long evoked a certain spookiness.
While it will be a “blue moon," it more accurately might be called a “foliage moon" because after it gains some wattage it will be beaming its silvery light on the surviving leaves, one of fall’s after-dark visual treasures.
Astronomers could care less about this blue-ness, since it means only that it’s the second full moon of the month, and given lunar cycles, any one that occurred on the 31st would have to be “blue.”
But that distinction is valuable, argues Freeman. It’s a reminder that the moon has long been one of humanity’s most valuable and maintenance-free clocks.
Time and Tides
“Its changing phases have provided humans a way to reckon time for tens of thousands of years,” Freeman observes.
The words “month” and “moon” have a symbiotic relationship. The Gregorian calendar has taken some liberties, but the months of the Jewish and Islamic calendars conform strictly with the 29.5-day lunar cycle.
Waters throughout the world obey the moon, governor of the tides. When the moon is full, it aligns with the sun, and that adds an extra gravitational tug on the waters. That can be a dangerous instigator of flooding and storm-surge waves.
A memorable local example: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cited the full moon as a major factor in the destructive March 1962 storm at the Jersey Shore.
One popular hypothesis once held that since we are about 80% water ourselves, the tugging full moon was an agent provocateur of lunacy. But one problem with that idea: Why wouldn’t similar effects occur during new moon, when its pull actually is slightly stronger?
In the first century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder postulated that the full moon generated heavy dew that added wetness to the brain and led to madness.
Belief in this “Transylvania effect,” tied to the legends of werewolves and vampires, persisted through the Middle Ages, as two psychologists noted in a Scientific American article, and the debate over the effects of the full moon on human behavior has persisted for over 2,000 years.
Homicides, pregnancies, emergencyroom visits — the full moon has been tied to almost everything but the coronavirus. Yet studies upon studies have failed to establish incontrovertible linkages.
Psychiatrist Charles L. Raison and two associates theorized that once upon a time, the full moon might have exacerbated certain mental disorders by affecting sleep patterns. Before outdoor lighting and at a time when many people were living outside, moonlight might have kept people awake, and sleep deprivation would have been a torment for those struggling with mental illness.
But in modern times the moon appears to have minimal impact on sleep. One 12-country study of nearly 6,000 children found that on average they slept about 1% less during a full moon, compared with a new moon.
One other point about the “full” moon: It’s unclear whether the average werewolf is aware of this, but the moon actually is 100% full for a mere existential instant, and on Saturday it will reach that hallowed state at 10:49 — a.m. Then it will be waning ever so subtly on its ineluctable journey back to invisibility.
But that reality has never dimmed the moon’s myth-making powers.
“Certainly, they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified.”
So wrote an “astronomer” in the New York Sun in 1835. He had observed these creatures using a telescope with a 4,826-pound lens and “estimated magnifying power 42,000 times.” The series was a sensation, and a whole lot of folks bought into the narrative of what became known as The Great Moon Hoax. It was perhaps the nation’s first encounter with fake news.
“The Moon is an artificial Earth satellite put into orbit around the Earth by some intelligent beings unknown to ourselves." This was not a hoax, but the findings of a pair of Soviet scientists published in the journal Sputnik in 1970.
“We refuse to engage in speculation about who exactly staged this unique experiment,” they wrote, “which only a highly developed civilization was capable of.”
The intelligent beings in question were unavailable for comment. If you see any suspicious activity on the moon Saturday night, please notify us immediately.
Otherwise, Freeman advises, “Look up and enjoy.”