Monday, April 29, 2013

What if There Were no Moon?

On one late drive home last week, I looked up at the full moon in the early night sky, and just marveled at its beauty.  And I asked myself the question, "How much different would life on Earth be if there were no moon orbiting around us?"

This may sound like an arbitrary question, but it is a very legitimate one.  Trying to imagine life without the Sun would be a rather pointless exercise, because without a star to govern our orbit and act as a steady energy source, there would be no life.  The same cannot be said for the one celestial body that orbits around the Earth.   

For all of its beauty, the Moon, our singular natural satellite that orbits us roughly once per month, is, for lack of a better word, unnecessary.  Some planets have no moons, some have many (the other night, I looked at Jupiter through a telescope and beheld its four moons) - a moon is, in a way, a planetary afterthought.  If the Moon were to mysteriously disappear tomorrow, the resulting physical changes on Earth would be minimal.
The mass of the Moon is just 1.23% that of the Earth, and is always in the area of 385,000 km away from it. The mass of the Sun is 333,000 times that of the Earth, but around 150,000,000 km away from it. The ratio of the gravitational influence on the Earth of the Sun with respect to the Moon is equal to their mass ratio (26,973,000) divided by the square of their separation ratio (151,796). So, the gravitational force exerted by the Sun onto the Earth is about 178 times greater than that of the Moon onto the Earth. As such, the orbit of the Earth would be negligibly impacted if the Moon were to pack up shop and leave.

A vanishing moon would have one very noticeable consequence here on the surface of Earth: the bodies of water would undergo some shifting.  Still, the displacement of the shores would be relatively small. The hydrosphere would oscillate about and soon settle into a new state not so different from that of today.  However, this state would be less dynamic, as the tidal effect of the Sun is less than half that of the Moon. 

If not for the media and interactions with others, I think I would go weeks, or even months without questioning the whereabouts of the moon, as I do not live near any body of water, nor am I an astronomer, nor am I a werewolf.

I do take notice of the Moon when it presents itself to me, and often stop in my tracks to take it in, but I do not get phased if it happens to be absent in the night sky.  My young daughter would surely sense the disappearance of the Moon before I, and would become immensely sad at the thought.  She adores the Moon - that bright thing in the sky that follows us during night time car rides.

I contend that in this day and age, the only significant effects that a vanishing moon would have on humanity would take place at an emotional level.  Simply put, we'd miss it.

Most religions place much importance on the Moon, sometimes going so far as to organize their calender and holidays around its phases.  The universal symbol of night, the Moon serves as the inspiration for pieces of all forms of art, but perhaps most for poetry.

There is also a certain frenzied feeling associated with the Moon (explored in the superb eighties romantic comedy, Moonstruck).  The word lunacy is derived from the latin word, Luna.  Some say that more extreme events occur during nights where a full moon is present, though this has never been scientifically documented.    

The Moon is by far the brightest object in the night sky.  Though not a source of light, it reflects the light of the Sun, and in so doing, indicates the particular location of the Sun via the side and portion of it that becomes illuminated.  Much of the general public are unaware that the Moon is just a rock that shines brilliantly due to the Sun.  Test your friends - you'll be surprised.

The Moon may not be a necessary ingredient for life on Earth, but as Earth's sole steady companion in its journey around the Sun, life is, in a subtle way, more pleasant because of it.


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