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Thinking Lunar

Humans by the light of the silvery moon.

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By THOMAS SWICK
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Toward the end, a long chapter is devoted to artists of the nighttime Thames, not just Turner and Whistler​—​whose work was greatly influenced by science​—​but Abraham (“Moonlight”) Pether and his cousin William, who collaborated with Joseph Wright, another great artist of the night and one of the Lunar Men, a group that met every month on the Monday closest to the full moon. (The date was chosen to make the ride home easier.) Attlee excels at finding these tantalizing connections, and brings to the paintings discussed (especially those readers may not have seen) the necessary detail, background, and passion.

The middle of the book contains the literal journey of the subtitle, as Attlee finally hits the road. Japan allows him to address the enormous significance that the moon has had in Asian cultures. Visiting a Kyoto temple for Tsukimi (the autumn moon-viewing festival), he follows everyone else’s lead and takes a picture of the orb, moved not just by its appearance but by the attention still paid to it by some of the most technologically addicted people on earth. From Kyoto he travels south to Kagoshima to see the city’s active volcano. Some scientists, Attlee writes, believe that a full moon close to earth (“at its perigee”) can influence volcanic eruptions. A typhoon, not an eruption, threatens his stay, but not before he finds Tsukimi burgers at McDonald’s. His next stop is Naples (Kagoshima’s sister city), where he notes that nighttime paintings of the bay, with Vesuvius in the background, were so popular with travelers on the Grand Tour that they made moonlight one of the region’s “principal exports.”

From Italy he travels to the American West, starting in Las Vegas. It is his ultimate Sin City, not only deleting the night​—​what glitters up there stays up there​—​but doing the deed in the desert, night’s long inviolable province. Though the city, he discovers, has its own volcano​—​in the middle of the Strip​—​and this one, accommodatingly, erupts on the hour. In addition to whipping boy, Vegas is also his gateway to Arizona, which boasts more large telescopes than any other state. Another interesting, if not necessarily surprising, fact. Fitting into both of those categories, however, is the Interstellar Light Collector outside Tucson, “a five-story-high array of parabolic mirrors” that, its builders claim, can cure a host of ailments by amplifying and directing moonlight at participants, who are hoisted by a boom lift. Atlee’s visit nicely mixes scientific skepticism with reportorial curiosity and
human understanding.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on Germans’ relationship with the moon. Attlee takes us from the beginning of the 19th century​—​when the Romantics associated it with the “night side” of life​—​to the imprisonment of Rudolf Hess who, in solitary confinement at Spandau, eagerly followed the race to put a man there. Intrigued by stars since childhood, Hess corresponded with people at NASA, who rewarded his interest by sending him photos and pamphlets and even “a minute-by-minute timetable for the Apollo 15 mission.”

Thomas Swick is the author of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.

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