As a child I was always fascinated by the night sky. All the stars, moving planets and just the majesty of the view on a clear night. I don’t think that I am alone in this. I suspect it may be a part of that sense of wonder that we all feel, that feeling of smallness in a greater universe.
I do not remember where I was when Neill Armstrong uttered his famous words as he first set foot on the Moon. I was probably puking up on my ever selfless mother’s lap while History was enfolding before my selfish three-year-old brain. Everything (bar my stuffed donkey toy) was in black and white in those days. Yet those events changed me. I could not help it. They changed the world. Everything after that was in glorious colour. I then wanted to be not a super-hero who fought dastardly villains, but rather an explorer of Other Worlds, like Armstrong and Aldrin and even Collins, (my mother’s namesake) and to fight strange alien monsters who might otherwise destroy all humanity.
I soon realised that it wasn’t to be. Though an American citizen, I was resident in Ireland and at that time ( unlike now) the Republic had no realistic Space Program. At about the age of twelve my parents realised my predicament and got me a really cool telescope for my birthday.
It soon became apparent that Science was not my true vocation. Star-Gazing, however, was something that I could involve myself in simply for my own enjoyment.
There is a difference here, between Science and Stargazing, though it is a minute one. Yes, I was interested in the minutiae of astronomical data and fascinated by the facts and figures. But mostly I loved looking at the Moon. The telescope I had was great – you could look at distant stars (a thing I also loved to do) , but the Moon grabbed most of my attention. Hours would go by. I never took notes or studied the Damned Thing. I simply gazed in awe.
As a prepubescent, while others were building Airfix models of Spitfires and other weapons of destruction, I was making models of the Lunar Lander. I fondly remember finally attaching the dish-array which was the very thing that kept my heroes in touch with their command centre on Earth. This was a great moment for me. The instrument of communication and of communion between Humankind and The Cosmos. Little did I know that one day soon I would see similar devices protruding from houses and community developments all over suburbia.
Eventually, (I still know not how nor why) the telescope disappeared. I was devastated. It was stolen somehow. I have always blamed myself for this. I should have watched the thing night and day. I thought I had, but while becoming an adolescent I must have let my eye stray from it and then it was gone.
Later, as I tried to be a health-care worker in the eighties, I found myself working in a nursing-home in England, doing the night-shift.
As any night-shift worker in any field will tell you, there will always be fallow hours. For me it was the hours when the patients are happily (one hopes) in bed, and all you can do during this period is maybe read until you need to be in action again. Thankfully this nursing-home had a good library. Well, when I say good I mean large. Mostly it was murder-mystery novels, spy-thrillers and sleuthing stuff. None of this interested me. There was one book, however that grabbed me. It was by a science-fiction writer who happened to also be a fine scientist by the name of Isaac Azimov. The book in question was not a work of fiction, mind, but rather a collection of essays on matters of science, and in particular on how the Earth’s Moon was fundamental not just to the development of life on this planet, but also the development of what we like to call ‘civilisation’.
Azimov explained how, not only did the very existence of our satellite save us from the meteoric bombardments which were endemic in the early formation of the planet, he also spoke about how tidal forces helped early life to form, he wrote of the importance of Lunar Cycles and how unique they are to our planet. He also spoke beautifully about how the simple fact that this glorious Thing In The Sky made us wonder at the beauty of all things.
It also caused people to wonder about the causes of Cosmic events, giving rise to what later would be called Science. Philosophy might also claim the Moon as it’s originator.
Recently I saw a photograph of a clearly overwhelmed Neill Armstrong, taken by his fellow astronaut, “Buzz” Aldrin, both of whom had set foot on this object. I know Azimov must also have seen this picture.
The moon is responsible for many things. The Geocentric view of the Universe could not have been without the Moon, for the Moon really does orbit the Earth, and without this no-one might have thought that all other celestial bodies did likewise. The Theory of Epicycles would never have been conceived and had such a thing not have happened it never could have been questioned. We might not have had a Copernicus, a Galileo, a Tycho Brahe or a Kepler. We might not even have had an Einstien, Bohr, Heisenberg or Feynman.
Or, if you prefer,
Either way, we might not have such a thing as Astronomy, nor indeed Science without a four-letter word.