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Fool Moon: The Annual Hype Over a Celestial Event is Bad Science — and Bad for Science 

Wednesday, Jul 3 2013

There's a reason Steven Spielberg put a midget actor in a diving cage surrounded by sharks in Jaws. It's the same reason many male adult film actors are short of stature. And it's also why photographs of last month's so-called "Super Moon" were shot with telephoto lenses and required slick perspective tricks. Essentially, it's an illusion. It's a way to make something look bigger.

And, for the movies, that's all right. Nobody mistook Jaws for a documentary and few cineastes complain that a real pizza deliveryman who accepts sexual favors in lieu of payment is not long for his job.

It rankles in the case of the "Super Moon," however. Like many people who've picked up the fool habit of actually reading their e-mails, your humble narrator was, last month, offered e-advice on "Where to See This Weekend's Extreme Super Moon." This is odd: You'd think seeing an "Extreme Super Moon" would be easier than observing a regular old moon — and no one offers unsolicited suggestions on how to do that. The simplest way to observe the moon is, often, to look up. At night. If you're seeing ceiling joists or air conditioning ducts, it means you're likely inside. There's an app for that.

And yet, Super Moon stories abound, accompanied by the aforementioned photos of comically oversize orbs looming over tiny cities like Death Stars.

"I got calls from several news agents wanting the facts and my thoughts about the Super Moon," wrote astronomer Ben Burress of Oakland's Chabot Space and Science Center on his KQED science blog. "Of course what they wanted to hear was that the moon's closeness and size and brightness and gravitational attraction were all magnitudes greater than normal, that the moment had measurable effects on tides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, and of course that there would be a bumper crop of werewolves and lunatics running around the night."

Well, that would go nicely with the photo.

Alas, the moon in June was only about 2 percent larger than the moon in May.

Incidents of werewolves and lunacy held steady.

By now many are probably wondering what the hell a Super Moon is. This is a term that, until recently, wasn't familiar to so many astronomers; it's a melodramatic phrase concocted by an astrologer named Richard Nolle. Astronomers use the term "perigee full moon." That's not a particularly special name, but this isn't a particularly special phenomenon. When a full moon coincides with the moon being at its closest point to the earth, then you've got a Super Moon. On a nice night, like any full moon, the Super Moon is a sight to see. But it's hard to discern what's super if you haven't been briefed beforehand.

June's Super Moon was only a smidgen larger than the May edition, and perhaps 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than the smallest and dimmest full moon. This is a distinction the vast majority of people cannot detect. As Burress noted, it's akin to visiting a vast, featureless plain (perhaps not unlike the landscape alongside Interstate-5): "If you saw someone standing 700 feet away from you, with no visual cues for comparison, could you tell the difference if that person was 6-feet-tall instead of 5-foot-1? That's analogous to the difference between seeing the moon when it's nearest to us and farthest away."

Every so often, we're cajoled into making the effort to observe astronomical events that last occurred during the reign of Edward the Confessor and won't come about again until the last Twinkie has long since gone rancid. These experiences often underwhelm: Halley's Comet (which scared the hell out of the Anglo-Saxons shortly after Edward's death in 1066) was a fuzzy smudge even through high-powered telescopes in 1986. Still, it won't be around again until 2062. So at least there's that.

This doesn't apply to the Super Moon. July's full moon will also be large and bright, and the next perigee full moon arrives Aug. 10, 2014. But you know what? Make an effort to look at it. Observing the skies and attempting to comprehend how the universe works are an unmitigated good.

Being conned into doing so isn't.

"Most people are not sufficiently trained in science to recognize when something is over-hyped and when it is not," notes U.C. Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko. "Their disappointment that the 'Super Moon' did not appear different from a normal full moon might lead them to ignore significant scientific discoveries that truly deserve some hype.

"They might also conclude that not much evidence is needed for a scientific hypothesis to be taken seriously," he continues. "This could lead to greater acceptance of bad science."

And San Franciscans accept more bad science than you'd think. Erstwhile Mayor Gavin Newsom pushed an anti-obesity plan that swapped juice for soda; nutritionists later noted this would impart just as many calories and do nothing to combat obesity. In this city, plans to erect cellular towers elicit a hue and cry over unproven health consequences. And yet, as revealed in this column last month, the city and its transit agency did nothing to keep idling Muni buses from needlessly spewing known carcinogens for decades.

A few years back, while researching a story on Biodynamic agriculture — an odd mix of organics and a belief in the occult — Bay Area winemakers told your humble narrator that, naturally, a full moon hoisted seedlings upward while a new moon pulled sediment to the bottom of the barrel.

That sounds logical — but the phases of the moon have nothing to do with its proximity to the earth. And its effects on individual objects are negligible: Filippenko calculated that the tidal forces exerted by the moon upon a one-meter-tall vine or wine barrel are actually around 60,000 times weaker than the tidal forces exerted by a 175-pound man standing one meter away. A 2-pound bunny scampering beneath the vine or barrel generates 750 to 1,000 times the tidal force of the moon.

So, an evening of unhyped, baloney-free appreciation of the night sky, especially in the bosom of our beautiful city, wouldn't just be good.

It'd be super.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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