1999: A Year for Basking in Moonlight
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
January 27, 1999
It seems to rule the oceans and the hearts of lovers, control human
fertility and many religions and sometimes determine when to go to war.
What does? The Moon does. It is one of the most beautiful and mysterious
objects of the sky, and if ever there was a year to pay attention to the
Moon it might well be 1999.
The year began with a full moon on New Year's day and we will have
another full moon on the last day of January. Having two full moons during
one month has come to be known as a "blue moon," because it has been
thought to be so rare. "Once in a blue moon," is the old saying we all
know. But it really isn't very rare.
Since the moon phase cycle is about 29.5 days long any month except
February can occasionally have two full moons. In 1999 February has no
full moon at all. Then we have another full moon to begin the month of
March as well as one to end the month on. Wow! Two blue moons in just
Each of the other months of the year has one full moon, becoming
earlier each month until the one in December is on the 22nd, also the date
of the winter solstice. And every month has 12 new moons. Thus, in total,
we have 12 new moons and 13 full moons during the year 1999.
This might not seem significant to many people today, but counting
lunar cycles has been of utmost importance for many cultures and still is
for some. Why does it matter what phase the moon is in?
Probably the most fundamental reason that the lunar cycle has
become important in the beliefs of people is that it just happens to have
about the same length as the human female menstrual cycle. Thus, in most
mythologies the Moon is considered to be female, while the Sun is generally
For this important reason and the fact that it is the second great
luminary of heaven people long ago and in many different places carefully
watched the Moon and counted out its cycles. They noticed that the cycle
was not an even number of days, and most important of all
that there were not an even number of cycles in one seasonal year. This
lack of commensuration between Sun and Moon has created all sorts of
dilemmas, especially for people with certain religious beliefs. If a holy
day is determined by the phase of the Moon yet must remain seasonal as well
it can become difficult to know which lunar cycle to put it in. Each
seasonal year contains about 11 days more than 12 lunar cycles. Thus, an
extra one must be fit in about every 3 years. Violent arguments have
ensued over this problem, sometimes leading to lack of trust in religious
leaders, but most cultures that depend upon both Sun and Moon for
establishing important days have worked out systems for managing this nasty
Both Moon and Sun cause tides in the oceans and atmosphere of
Earth. The Moon being nearer generates the greater tide. Long ago those
who sailed the oceans or lived along shore lines observed that the Moon
seemed to coax the tide to roll in and out. Especially high tides occurred at
new and full moon when Sun, Moon and Earth were all approximately aligned.
For some cultures depending upon the oceans for survival, the Moon seemed
even more important than the Sun.
Have you noticed in recent years that bombing raids have usually
been staged at approximately the time of new moon? I hope I am not
revealing an important US secret to Saddam in writing this. The reason is
quite obvious; aircraft can more safely conduct such activities when the
sky is darkest. The Muslim holy days of Ramadan, beginning with
observation of the new moon, complicated a recent attack on Iraq because it
was politically expedient not to conduct military activities during such
religiously important days, yet it seemed necessary to do so during the
darkest time of the month when the raid seemed warranted. Thus we see that
the Moon continues to come into the affairs of men in strange and powerful
The Moon is certainly one of the most interesting objects around
us. It is, of course, the first body beyond Earth that humans visited. I
remember that during the years when we were planning those first
expeditions to the Moon some writers lamented that the Moon would lose its
charm. "No longer," they wrote, " would lovers sit within its light to
spoon away the hours and plan their futures." It would become just another
rock in space, they said.
As I think about this now, I do not believe that this prediction
came true. As far as I have been able to observe people enjoy the Moon now
just as much as ever before, perhaps even more. People stand in long lines
to look at it through a telescope and they still hold their sweethearts
close in its light. Indeed, I think people find it even more interesting
now than before, for it has become our place of initiation as a space
venturing species. Someday we will go back there to gather more scientific
samples and to establish a truly long-range laboratory in space. Dreams
have translated into plans for an astronomical observatory on the far side
of the Moon.
The great astronomer, Henry Norris Russell, once said that all good
astronomers go to the Moon when they die so that they can observe the stars
without unwanted effects of a dirty and cloudy atmosphere. Perhaps our
first lunar observatory will be haunted by Dr. Russell and other deceased
So, in 1999 take those binoculars out in the night and look around.
They are, after all, a pair of little telescopes, one for each eye, and
they are great for viewing the Moon and many other things in the sky.