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Monday, July 14, 2014

Super Moon: Don't, Don't, Don't Believe the Hype

Posted By on Mon, Jul 14, 2014 at 12:45 PM

click to enlarge AUDREY FUKUMAN
  • Audrey Fukuman

This weekend marked a "super moon" sighting. And, next month, there'll be an even more super super moon. 

And that's ... super. 

Astronomers tend to say that anything inspiring people to look toward the heavens in wonder and with an open mind is a good thing. They're right. But a "super moon" is to astronomers what a centennial quarter is to coin collectors. It's nice -- the image of the man with the three-cornered hat and the drum is a hoot -- but it's not all that special. 

A super moon is a somewhat melodramatic term describing when the full moon coincides with the moon being its closest to the earth. Since the moon is both at its closest and most visible, it's a bit bigger and brighter than a run-of-the-mill full moon. But not tremendously so. 

The dramatic shots of immense, Death Star-like moons looming over the landscape are, for the most part, shot with telephoto lenses and slick perspective tricks (when photographed looming over the horizon, the moon appears larger than it really is due to a phenomenon called the "moon illusion."). 

And while the moon is bigger and brighter, it isn't all that much bigger or brighter. 

The most recent moon was about 15 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than average. That's not insignificant -- but you'd be hard-pressed to notice without being prompted. 

Imagine, wrote astronomer Ben Burress of Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center, "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."

So, what's the upshot? Well, there isn't one, per se. A beautiful, bright moon on a lovely summer night over the Bay Area is a great thing. But, as your humble narrator wrote last year: "Observing the skies and attempting to comprehend how the universe works are an unmitigated good. Being conned into doing so isn't."

Overselling a relatively commonplace and banal astronomical occurrence might blow back on those who'd hope to popularize science, knowledge, and open-mindedness. 

"Most people are not sufficiently trained in science to recognize when something is over-hyped and when it is not," U.C. Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko told us last year. "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 continued. "This could lead to greater acceptance of bad science."

San Francisco, counter-intuitively, is a place where people accept a fair amount of bad science

So, enjoy the moon. Enjoy next month's too. 

But, in every way, keep things in perspective. 

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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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