Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Bison found on the moon!

A lot of people have been celebrating the moon today. It's 400 years to the day since Galileo - the old astronomy chap with the bad eyes - started to get into all sorts of trouble with the Church. On 25th August 1609, the Venetian all-rounder showed his telescope (a variation of the Dutch Trunk) to merchants. Soon, this scientific marvel would bring Galileo fame and imprisonment. Today is the anniversary of an event that changed human existence.

Tomorrow, however, is the 174th anniversary of something much funnier, warmer, and something far more attuned to my book. I love things like this. I mean, fire-wielding biped beavers. If we're talking genius...

In August 1835, a young John Herschel - son of respected astronomer and man of speculation, William - reported his observations of the moon's surface, as seen through his "telescope of vast dimensions" from the Cape of Good Hope. When I say the young Herschel reported his findings, the New York Sun actually, kindly, reported them for him.

And these are some of the extraordinary sightings of which they told, in sentences so lyrical and polyclausal that they almost sucked me in too:

(from Wednesday 26th August 1835 - Day 2 of the New York Sun's serialisation)

  • "A beach of brilliant white sand, girt with wild castellated rocks, apparently of green marble, varied at chasms, occurring every two or three hundred feet, with grotesque blocks of chalk or gypsum, and feathered and festooned at the summit with the clustering foliage of unknown trees, moved along the bright wall of our apartment until we were speechless with admiration."

  • "The water, we obtained a view of it, was nearly as blue as that of the deep ocean, and broke in large white billows upon the strand."
wait for it...
  • "...we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history."

  • "The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster. It was of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular."
wait for it...
  • "A species of grey pelican was the most numerous; but a black and white crane, with unreasonably long legs and bill, were also quite common."

Intrigued readers snapped up copies of the paper like it had just reported bison on the moon. Oh. Of course none of it is real. Like Edgar Allan Poe's 1844 account of Atlantic balloon crossings in "The Balloon-Hoax", Herschel's articles are fanciful. Too good to be true. And, best of all, nothing to do with John Herschel. Or William Herschel, who would have been proud of such fantasies. These are the writings of a Cambridge-educated reporter called Richard Adams Locke (or, rather ironically, so the story goes).

On the third day, The Sun reported my favourite part of the hoax. It involves little, ugly, furry creatures. Oh, and man-bats. Tune in next time...

Or read this I guess. I implore you: if you have ten minutes, read these articles. They're great. If you're going to dupe people - thousands of people - this is how to do it.

image above: Great Moon Hoax lithograph of "ruby amphitheatre" from New York Sun, 1835

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