Last January’s lunar eclipse demonstrated there’s a fine line between enthusiasm and hype.
“This message may be a scam,” my computer warned me when an e-mail from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi arrived. The press release proclaimed the January 31 total lunar eclipse as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” because it occurred when the Moon was both “blue” and “super” at the same time, yielding a “super, blue, blood Moon.” Wow!
Sadly, Texas A&M wasn’t the only source hyping the eclipse. Even NASA got in on the “super, blood, blue Moon” game. And once credible organizations join the hype brigade, it’s game over. The sensationalism is repeated and amplified downstream by media outlets that get their astronomy information secondhand. The hyperbole is baked in, along with whatever errors happen to creep into the mix. One “fact” I saw repeated over and over was that a “supermoon” is 14 percent larger than usual. It’s not true. Owing to our satellite’s elliptical orbit, the Moon is 14 percent larger at perigee than at apogee, when it’s smallest. Since the Moon usually isn’t at one of these extremes, the difference between a supermoon and an average one is at best around 7 percent. Indeed, for all of 2018, the difference spans just 6 percent. Not that exciting in either case.
Within the parameters set out in its press release, Texas A&M’s description of a “once-in-a-lifetime” lunar eclipse wasn’t exactly wrong, but it also wasn’t right. Every single day, each of us does trivial things that could be described as “once in a lifetime,” yet we tend not to take note of them. In other words, a rare event isn’t necessarily an important one. The crux of the matter regarding last winter’s eclipse concerns whether the two secondary factors resulted in something not only unusual but significant in some way.
Don’t get me wrong—I think lunar eclipses are simply amazing. They’re always visually arresting and a wonder to behold, particularly when we consider the celestial mechanics behind them. Isn’t that enough? Was the experience of watching the January 31 eclipse greatly enhanced because the Moon happened to be full for the second time that month or because the Moon was slightly closer than usual the day before? Not to my eye.
So why does any of this matter? Anyone familiar with the fable of the boy who cried wolf (or, the astronomical version, The Boy Who Cried Kohoutek) knows the answer. It’s understandable that as astronomy enthusiasts, we want to share our sense of wonder and excitement with others. It’s fun and often very rewarding. And the universe undeniably is amazing. But when people’s expectations fall out of sync with reality, everyone loses. We in the astro community lose credibility, and the public becomes incrementally more cynical not just about space science but about science in general. When observable reality and “this message may be a scam” become indistinguishable, trouble follows. We live in a time when more people need to become engaged with science so that we can properly grapple with the many complex environmental challenges that confront us. While overselling a lunar eclipse isn’t going to lead directly to an existential crisis, it’s one more straw on the proverbial camel’s poor aching back.
Check out the May/June 2018 issue of SkyNews for an expanded version of Gary’s Editor’s Report.