August 25, 2010

Great Astronomical Discoveries

Reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science, the August 25, 1835 issue of The New York Sun newspaper, reported on "Great Astronomical Discoveries" made by John Herschel, a well-known British astronomer. Herschel had invented a particularly strong telescope, with which he was able to observe the surface of the moon. The article asserted that Herschel's discoveries would forever mark this age one of the greatest in human knowledge.

After a long description of the telescope itself and how it works, the article ends with this tantalizing suggestion: "He expressed confidence in his ultimate ability to study even the entomology of the moon, in case she contained insects upon her surface." Insects! Five more installments followed this first article, each describing more impressive observations. Herschel had witnessed with his own eyes the true nature of the moon: trees, oceans, beaches, mountains. Readership of The Sun increased rapidly as these descriptions continued over the next few days. Most shocking were the reports of the moon's animal life: bison, goats, unicorns, and even humanoid creatures with bat-like wings. The society on the moon looked something like this:
Of course, none of these reports were true. Today called "The Great Moon Hoax," it has become one of the most legendary hoaxes in the history of journalism. The Sun never issued a retraction, nor did it ever reveal the true author (today assumed to be Richard A. Locke, a reporter for that newspaper). John Herschel, a real astronomer living at the time, apparently had no prior knowledge about the hoax.

Its major impact, perhaps, was its influence on a young author, who later published his own hoax in the same newspaper years later. That writer, Edgar Allan Poe, had actually published his own moon-related hoax (today known as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall") only two months before the "Great Moon Hoax" in The Sun — but the impact of that hoax was nil, as it was quickly overshadowed.

*Recommended reading The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York by Matthew Goodman.

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