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September 18: The Great Moon Hoax

Page history last edited by James Wyly 15 years, 7 months ago


This summary is based on the section of the book called “The Great Moon Hoax”, which

deals with the writings of Richard Adams Locke and the reaction to them. Firstly, this book is written as observations on supposed astronomical discoveries by renowned astronomer Sir John Herschell. It was released with no sort of preface to inform readers that it was untrue, and because of this led a large multitude of people to believe that it was entirely based on actual observations. In fact, it was not even known who the true author was until long after it had been released. Until that point, everyone, including those in the scientific community, had taken it seriously.

The actual content of this article  is not as important as the reactions it drew and the meaning behind why it was written. First it had been considered fact, immediately after publication, but then once the fact that it was a falsehood became apparent, Locke was condemned for orchestrating what the common people called the “moon-hoax”. It was not until much later that it was made apparent that what Locke had truly intended was for it to be a satire. Unfortunately for Locke, it seems that at the time of its publication, he had gone over the head of his intended audience. Historically speaking, it is possible to prove through the reading of several letters and other articles written by Locke that he had in fact intended this to be a satire.  

The message that Locke was trying to send is much more apparent now than the day it was published. Of all previous astronomers and people involved in the debate on extraterrestrial life, Locke was particularly hard on Thomas Dick.  As was evidenced in the readings in Crowe by Thomas Dick, he was particularly fascinated with making speculations about the universe, the most famous of which was his approximation of the total population of the universe.  Locke is trying to send a message in this article about how the speculation doesn’t really help anything, and he seems to imply that some of these people only say very unlikely things in order to become noticed.  In particular he discusses how Dick merely mixes his religion with little fact and then begins to make wild speculations about the universe. 

As such, in the actual text there are a few apparent references that he makes, which are only apparent when reading the writings of Locke under the lens of a satirist.  In the text, the scientist who had done the observations, Sir John Herschel, appears to make several outlandish claims, which are in turn proved by his observances.  One particular example that comes to mind is that of the declaration that he believed there would be intelligent life at the 26th line of latitude, which he of course discovers there.  I believe this particular example in particular holds specific implications into the philosophy of the search for extraterrestrial life.  This example seems to imply that we think we know exactly know to look for extraterrestrial life, and we may be right or we may be wrong, but if you take the 26th line of latitude to mean the moon, and the moon itself to represent the universe, it seems as though the idea that extraterrestrials would be so close to us is very similar to the idea that the scientist Herschel would know upon exactly what part of the moon to look at in order to find intelligent life.  This is not the only example of a part of this writing through which greater implications can be thought of, but it is one of the most obvious.


            In conclusion, I have found this to be one of the most dry, but entertaining readings so far.  As a reader, it would be better to read it while knowing it was intended to be a satire, so as to be able to catch some of the more subtle parts of the pamphlet which would otherwise appear to be nonsense or pure speculation.  Under the correct lens, I find this to honestly be one of the more interesting readings that we had done so far, and also one of the most meaningful.  Along with all of this, the things he states makes intuitive sense, that if we don’t know about it, there is no point in making very specific wild conjectures about how things may or may not be.  He seems to think that such things only hurt the debate on whether or not we are alone in the universe, and that these people who give wild speculations are detrimental to those who try and do things scientifically.

Comments (1)

mrb683@truman.edu said

at 12:42 pm on Sep 19, 2008

I thought that this was a very interesting topic and going-on of that time period. It kind of reminds me of the War of the Worlds broadcast where everyone who listened thought it was real and had to be told that it was fiction. With the Moon Hoax it was similar because it wasn't revealed as fiction until the author came out and said it. I believe it to be an interesting science fiction work as well.

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