World goes crazy for rare ‘supermoon’

Close encounter: The moon rising behind the US Capitol in Washington, DC. © Getty

Can the Moon really affect the mind? This weekend a rare phenomenon, a supermoon, brightened skies all over the world. Humanity is entranced by our lunar satellite. But is there more to it?

Last night the world was united in one activity. From York to New York, skywatchers gathered outside with their cameras and binoculars to gaze at a supermoon. To observers, the Moon appeared about 7% larger and 15% brighter. It is the only such event in 2017.

But some people were on the lookout for other peculiar goings-on. They were sure that the night would witness unusual crimes, unpleasant illnesses, even unexpected births. And it would be the moon’s fault.

The idea that lunar cycles influence human behaviour is as old as time. Babylonian scribes wrote: “A woman is fertile according to the moon”. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the moon moved the water in human brains. The moon came to be associated in particular with madness: indeed, the word “lunacy” comes from the Latin for “moon”.

Many still hold such beliefs today — and not just loonies, either. In a range of countries, nurses regularly cite strange cases during full moons, from mass food poisonings to people wandering about in the nude. Police forces report spikes in crime and violence. Some even send out extra officers on these nights.

Occasionally, scientists try to demonstrate a link. Their studies appear to show a correlation between the moon’s cycle and, say, murder rates.

However, the weight of evidence is against them. One recent review pointed out flaws in their research. Most studies find no connection but those scientists who claim one are simply guilty of confirmation bias: the tendency to cherry-pick statistics that “prove” your opinions, and ignore the rest. “The moon is innocent,” concluded the review.

Yet the beliefs persist. People continue to claim that the moon can disturb bodily liquids — much as it creates tides in the sea — or that its brightness causes insomnia and hence erratic behaviour. These themes filter into popular culture, where werewolves and vampires come out to play under a full moon.

For some, the supermoon was just a pretty sight. For others, it held a deeper significance. Who is right?

Over the moon

Enough with the superstitions, say some. In this age of electricity, the moon’s brightness makes no difference to our lives. And as the astronomer George O. Abell said, its gravitational pull on you is less than a mosquito’s. Anyone who claims otherwise is peddling dangerous pseudo-science — or is just a lunatic.

Don’t be so sure, reply others. Just because there is no evidence for the link does not mean it is not there. Scientists agree that lunar cycles affect animals’ habits, so why not ours? Anyway, this debate is about more than cold reason. It reveals our instinct to search for meaning in the world. Better to be curious than close-minded.

You Decide

  1. Were you excited about the supermoon? Why (not)?
  2. Is there a place for superstitions in a modern society?

Activities

  1. The next time the moon comes this close to earth will be in 2034. Come up with a list of things you want to achieve by then.
  2. Choose a passage from a work of literature which refers to the moon. Write 800 words on how the author uses the moon as a symbol, and why you like the work.

Some People Say...

“You can be the moon, and still be jealous of the stars.”

American country singer Gary Allan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The supermoon phenomenon happens when the Moon reaches its closest point to Earth, known as a perigee Moon. The Moon circuits the Earth in an oval orbit — a supermoon occurs when the perigee Moon is also a full Moon. We know that the Moon continues to inspire wonder among human beings, even though we know far more about it than we used to.
What do we not know?
There still remain a few mysteries about our satellite. We still do not really know how it got there. One plausible theory states that a Mars-size body slammed into a young, molten Earth, a collision which gouged out the material that would create our lunar neighbour.

Word Watch

Supermoon
The moon’s orbit is not perfectly circular, and its distance from the earth varies. A supermoon occurs when the moon becomes full while at its closest point to earth.
Babylonian
Babylonia was a civilisation that flourished in modern-day Iraq in the 2nd millennium BC.
Latin
In Roman mythology, Luna was the moon goddess.
Some
This happened in Brighton in 2007. “From my experience,” said one officer, “on full moons, we do seem to get people with stranger behaviour: more fractious, argumentative.”
Review
Conducted by UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in 2015.
Bodily liquids
A human body consists of between 50% and 75% water.
Tides
The moon — and, to a lesser extent, the sun — exerts a gravitational pull on the earth. Most things stay put, but water is displaced slightly. See Become An Expert.
Animals’ habits
For example, coral starts reproducing like mad after a full moon, while badgers lay off the sex. The reasons are not always clear. That said, scientists speculate that the brightness of a full moon exposes prey, who are thus less likely to emerge. This discourages their predators from hunting, too.

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