We’ve talked before in this space about astronomer William Herschel and his sister Caroline, both of whom made tremendous contributions to cataloging the objects in night sky around the end of the 18th century. But the family connection to the stars didn’t end with the sky-mapping siblings.
In turn, William’s son, Sir John Herschel, became globally famous as a chemist, physicist, and mathematician. At first he was reluctant to be fall in his father’s shadow by devoting much time to astronomy, but in his early 20s he joined his father in researching a number of double-stars. At the age of 24 he constructed his own 20-foot-long telescope in the same workshop his father and Caroline had used (William and Caroline cast their own metal mirrors, creating a whole line of highly reflective alloys in the process, using a small furnace built right in the middle of their own home — I left that part out before, but it’s also a good story).
By the 1830s, the younger Herschel was the most famous astronomer in the world, and also a noted world traveler, scholar of languages, and all around “natural historian” who wrote on dozens of subjects. He was also something of a celebrity, constantly asked to make an appearance or a speech, which made Hershel profoundly uncomfortable.
In November of 1833, Herschel and his wife traveled to South Africa. There he erected a new 21’ telescope of his own design in the suburbs of Cape Town and began making observations of objects that were inaccessible to observers in the northern hemisphere. He also worked with his wife Margaret, a talented artist, to produce a beautiful collection of drawings and paintings of the plants found in the area of his new observatory.
With all that background, it wasn’t too surprising to American readers when they saw Herschel’s name on the front page of the New York Sun newspaper on August 25, 1835. For most people at the time, Herschel wasn’t an astronomer, he was the astronomer—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking, all rolled into one.
But even with the authority of Herschel’s name behind it, the subject of that Sun article was certainly shocking: Herschel, said the article, had discovered life on the Moon. And not just life, but a civilization.
Over the course of six days, Sun readers were treated to explanations of how Herschel’s latest telescope, operating in the clear air from the hills outside of Cape Town, had allowed the astronomer to see details of the Moon’s surface with incredible fidelity. That included spotting herds of creatures that looked something like single-horned crosses between bison and unicorns, large shuffling bipeds that resembled beavers and shared those rodents’ knack for constructing crude structures, and a variety of flora that clung to the steep walls of lunar craters.
The most exciting news came when readers were introduced to a race of bat-winged humanoids, capable of flying in the Moon’s relatively weak gravity, which constructed both homes and grand temples from pale lunar rock, decorating them with giant crystals of amethyst. Herschel’s observations were reportedly so good that he was able to make some significant progress toward working out the behavior and even religion of these moon beings. He also provided them with a scientific name, Vespertilio homo, or … The Bat Man.
All of this was, of course, a hoax perpetuated in order to drum up readership for the recently launched Sun. Among those suspected of authoring the imaginative articles was Edgar Allen Poe’s editor—who not only worked with the paper, but had recently published a story from Poe which contained several similar ideas. Only Poe’s story was clearly written as satirical fiction. The genius of the Great Moon Hoax, the thing that gave it that 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast impact, was that the writer at the Sun played it straight, using enough details of Herschel’s work and just enough knowledge of actual astronomy to sell the idea to a credulous audience.
When he learned about the hoax, John Herschel at first found the whole thing hilarious. However, as years when by, he discovered that when he toured America, the first thing that people wanted to ask him about was not any of his astronomical discoveries or scientific breakthroughs. They wanted to know the latest happenings among the Bat Men of the Moon. Herschel got tired of that. Fast.
Thankfully, the pits NASA mentioned on the Moon are quite real and the temperate conditions there seem to be based on accurate data. The observed pits are estimated to be around 300’ (100M) deep. There have been proposals that these sites might not just act as a place where visitors to the Moon could park their spacecraft and build bases, but that the entire pits might be covered over and filled with air, proving a massive space on the Moon where people could live in shirtsleeves.
If they do, they might want to check out sewing on a set of wings. After all, that gravity really is quite low …