Sometimes the Moon is all I have

In the chaos of the past year(s) we’ve found ourselves in – Observing the Moon, really looking – standing and craning your neck to the sky or sitting comfortably on a garden lounge chair, or lying down on a patch of grass letting the reflected sunlight fill your eyes (despite the fact that it sometimes seems to shine very brightly, the moon reflects only between 3 and 12 percent of the sunlight that hits it), or gazing in amazement through a telescope, it’s easy to be reminded of how ancient and everlasting our closest celestial body is. When I do this, and it is often, it always puts my life into perspective. But more than that, it’s like visiting an old friend, and I am alone in the moment no-longer.

Lifting my gaze into the sky… and on some days not always the night sky, I join a list of humans that spans millennia; For as long as humans have gazed skyward, the Moon has been a focus of wonder, fascination and curiousity. We could always see our cosmic partner’s mottled, cratered face by eye. Later, telescopes sharpened our views of its impact craters, their ejecta, dead volcanoes, mountains, hills, lava flow seas and depressions filled by magma, known as relict lava maria, but by the mid-20th century, humans visited our Moon and saw its surface up close, even bringing some rock samples home.

Humankind’s fascination with the Moon, and the five other planets in our Solar System that are visible to the naked eye, has been at the forefront of the mythology of many ancient cultures, with the majority considering it a deity. To the Egyptians the Moon was Thoth, a wise counsellor who solved almost any dispute and who is credited by the Egyptians as the inventor of all writing, wisdom, magic, and the 365-day calendar. To the Greeks it was Artemis the twin sister of the Sun God Apollo, and was considered the Greek Goddess of hunting, wild nature, chastity and a patron of young women and a protectress during childbirth. To the Hindus, Chandra is describe as a young and beautiful man, the Father of Buddha (planet Mercury) the Lord of night, plants and vegetation.

The cycle of the Moon’s waxing and waning phases was tracked by many cultures and helped contribute to the making of the modern Month (roughly the time it takes to go from new moon, to full moon and back again), giving rise to the basis of several ancient calendars, as well as the name of the first day of our week, Monday. Full moons and lunar eclipses were also seen by some cultures as bad omens. When Christopher Columbus was stranded for a year on what is now Jamaica, during his fourth voyage to the New World, he intimidated the island’s natives by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse.

So what do we see when we look at the Moon? Well…

What appears to us as the most distinctive aspect of the Moon is the contrast between its bright grey/white zones, and its dark zones. Since Aristotle, the prevailing school of thought was that the heavens were more perfect than the Earth, and therefore all celestial bodies, including the moon, were perfectly smooth spheres. Galileo Galilei challenged this notion when he trained his telescope on the Moon and sketched its surface. As he wrote in his 1610 treatise The Starry Messenger, Galileo saw that the moon’s surface was in fact rough and rocky with dark, flat, low-lying regions and brighter highlands (although it was Englishman Thomas Harriot who is actually credited with the first maps of the lunar surface.)

image credit: Open University

The lighter surface areas are referred to as the lunar highlands, which are named terrae (the singular terra, is from the Latin for Earth). The darker plains are called maria (similarly, the singular mare, is from the Latin for sea). The names for each were coined by the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler who introduced the names in the 17th century. The highlands are anorthositic (a phaneritic, intrusive igneous rock characterized by its composition: mostly plagioclase feldspar (90–100%), with a minimal mafic component (0–10%), whereas the maria are basaltic (Basalt is a mafic extrusive igneous rock formed from the rapid cooling of lava rich in magnesium and iron). The lunar highlands, or terrae, are older than the visible maria, and that is why the are more heavily crated.

image credit: Peter Freiman Cmglee & Gregory H. Revera 

The lunar maria, are the major reminants of relict volcanic processes on the Moon. These flows of basaltic lava cover almost a third of the Moons near side relative to us Earth-bound observers. Only a small percent of the far-side has been effected by mare volcanism. Combined, the mares cover only 16% of the total of the Moon’s surface. The names of maria refer to sea features: Mare Humorum, Mare Imbrium (Apollo 15’s landing site), Mare Insularum, Mare Nubium, Mare Spumans, Mare Undarum, Mare Vaporum, Oceanus Procellarum (Apollo 12’s landing site), and Mare Frigoris. Sea attributes: Mare Australe, Mare Orientale, Mare Cognitum, Mare Marginis, or states of mind: Mare Crisium, Mare Ingenii, Mare Serenitatis, Mare Tranquillitatis (Apollo 11’s landing site). Mare Humboldtianum and Mare Smythii were established before the final nomenclature, that of states of mind, was accepted, and do not follow this pattern. When Mare Moscoviense was discovered by the Luna 3 Soviet spacecraft, launched in 1959 it was the first-ever mission to photograph the far side of the Moon and the third Soviet space probe to be sent to the neighbourhood of the Moon, and the name was proposed by the Soviet Union, it was only accepted by the International Astronomical Union with the justification that Moscow is a state of mind. Apollo 14 was the first lunar highlands landing, within Fra Mauro. Apollo 16 was the next, landing within the Descartes formation. Apollo 17 landed with the Taurus-Littrow Valley.

image credit: jwastronomy

The Moons impact cratering rivals the lunar maria as the most notable geological process as seen by Earth-bound observers. The craters themselves are formed when a solid body, such as an asteroid or comet collides with the surface at a high velocity, in the Moons case velocities are around 17km per second, or 38,000mph. The kinetic energy of the impact themselves creates a compression shockwave that radiates away from the point of entry into the surface. This is followed by a rarefaction wave, which is responsible for propelling most of the ejecta out of the crater. The third and final process in the creation of an impact crater is a hydrodynamic rebound of the floor that can create a central peak. You can observe with the naked eye a continuum of diameter of crater across the Moons surface, ranging in size from tiny, barely visible pits to the immense South Pole-Aitken basin which has a diameter of almost 2,500km (1553miles) and a depth of 13km (8miles).

Returning our attention back to the Earth, today the World is consumed by the Coronavirus, more commonly known as COVID-19. There has been a series of worldwide lockdowns with some countries now beginning to ease restrictions, while others are extending lockdowns or introducing new regional measures with families from separate households unable to meet now for what has been a little over a year. 2.6million people have died Worldwide so far, and the spread of the pandemic has left national and International economies and businesses counting the costs, as governments struggle with new lockdown measures to tackle the spread of the virus. Employment has skyrocketed. Using the United States alone as an example, the proportion of people out of work hit a yearly total of 8.9%, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), signalling an end to a decade of jobs expansion. Worldwide millions of workers have also been put on government-supported job retention schemes as parts of the economy, such as tourism and hospitality, have come to a near standstill. The numbers of new job opportunities is still very low in many countries. However job vacancies in Australia have returned to the same level of 2019, but they are lagging in France, Spain, the UK (where I am writing from) and several other countries.

My employment has luckily continued as I fall into the governments media/broadcast/journalist essential worker category where travel and is a necessary part of my job. But, the mixture of travel and the cloud of COVID-19 only emphasizes the cognitive hallmark of preoccupying thoughts of home, family members and attachment objects during this difficult time. Similar to homesickness sufferers, I usually feel a tinge of what is typically a combination of depressive and anxious symptoms, withdrawn behaviour and difficulty focusing on topics unrelated to home as the Months away from home take their toll. For many years, 16 to date, I have travelled the World far and wide, often on tours for Months at a time away from family and friends and have managed to shrug the thoughts of missing home to the back of my mind.

One of the feelings millions of us are experiencing during the current coronavirus pandemic is loneliness. In our combined efforts to stay safe and save lives, our usual ways of seeing family, friends or just familiar faces have been put on pause.

One such assignment was the 2018 Asian Games. Officially known as the 18th Asian Games and also as Jakarta–Palembang 2018. The event was a continental multi-sport event that was held from 18 August to 2 September 2018 in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Palembang. I was required to travel to Indonesia, for roughly two Months to prepare for the tournament, broadcast the tournament to a Worldwide audience, and de-rig the event once it had finished. For the first time, the Summer Asian Games were co-hosted by two regions; the Indonesian capital of Jakarta (which was hosting the Games for the first time since 1962), and Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra province. Events were held in and around the two cities, including venues in Bandung and the provinces of West Java and Banten. I was based solely in Jakarta, a city that experiences quite severe conditions in terms of the quality of light. The city is one of the worst in the World for its use of artificial light, the pollution and glare causes vision discomfort, and sky glow where light emitted directly into the atmosphere forms a dome covering the sky at night. This sky glow obstructs the vision of urban residents from seeing any stars in the night sky. None. Nothing.

image credit: The Jakarta Post

Indonesian sleep health practitioner Dr. Andreas Prasadja RPSGT confirmed that sleep disorders are related to light. Many adults and young people experience delayed sleep disorder. Prasadja highlighted the important role of light as a central regulator of the body’s biological rhythms, including wake and sleep cycles, circadian rhythms, and suprachiasmatic nucleus that are sensitive to light. “As soon as sleep is disturbed, from the tip of the hair to the legs get affected,” the sleep specialist, or better known as sleep physician, noted. Prasadja pointed to disorders in the cardiovascular system to that of blood vessels resulting from disturbed sleep patterns. Moreover, the body’s immunity gets compromised as a result of disturbances in sleep patterns. In more complex cases, disruption of sleep patterns can cause metabolic disorder in humans that results in diabetes and obesity.

Not only does Jakarta suffer from severe light pollution, it suffers from pollution in the truest sense. Data complied by Greenpeace Indonesia taken from ambient air sensors at the United States embassy buildings in Central and Southern Jakarta show that the capital does not record a single day of ‘good’ air quality, all year, every year.

image credit: The Jakarta Post

I felt awful, physically and mentally. Similar to when a flu-like virus penetrates your body, my immune system reacted by going into overdrive producing white blood cells to fight it, causing me to fever, feel exhausted yet unable to sleep, congested, suffer from a sore throat and cough, and have near constant vertigo. All which helped to make my body “hostile” for the virus. But there was no virus. As my motivation plummeted, I begun to feel effects similar to homesickness and found myself counting down the time until I could fly home. But the countdown did not involve days, but weeks and Months until I departed.

With my morale at its lowest point, I instinctively looked up into the night sky as I did every night during my walking commute between my hotel and the television studio, and I was surprised to see a very welcome visitor from home. Through the mountains of clouds, through pollution that refrained the light of the stars, the shine of the Moon had broken through. The mascot of darkness. Desolate and distant yet, comforting. I stood in speechless awe.

The Moon, my loyal companion from those evenings spent at home gazing skyward from my garden, brought a welcome relief. Steadfast in the sky. Every day it is a different version of itself as it cycles through its phases. It appears new having returned to look down upon us, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing as we do. Sometimes waning and appearing weak, and sometimes strong and full of light. The Moon seems to appear to know what it is to be human. Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections. But capable to shine in times of darkness.

The night sky, the Moon in particular has served as my quintessential source of curiousity. Stephen Hawking often used his “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.” comment as a metaphor, but our mindset is affected by how we physically present ourselves. Our posture, whether we slump and look down, or hold ourselves upright – is related to mood.

The waning Moon that visited me in the Indonesian sky that night, proved to me that right there I didn’t need to be whole in order to shine. Everyone wants to be someone’s Sun to light up someone’s life, but why not the Moon? The Moon brightens us in our darkest hours after all.

Like the Moon, we must go through phases of emptiness to feel full again.

(Featured image credit: Astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy)

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