Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fly Me to the Moon

 James Thurber wrote a delightful child's story called 'Many Moons' about a little princess who wasn't feeling well. All that would make her better was to hold the moon. Below is an excerpt:

"Nobody can do anything for me," said the king mournfully. "Princess Lenore wants the
moon, and she cannot be well till she gets it, but nobody can get it for her. Every time
I ask anybody for the moon, it gets larger and farther away. There is nothing you can do
for me except play on your lute. Something sad."

"How big do they say it is," asked the court jester, "and how far away?"

"The Lord High Chamberlain says it is 35,000 miles away, and bigger than princess
Lenore's room," said the king. "The Royal Wizard says it is 150,000 miles away, and
twice as big as this palace. The Royal Mathematician says it is 300,000 miles away
and half the size of this kingdom."

The court jester strummed on his lute for a little while. "They are all wise men," he
said, "and so they must all be right. If they are all right, then the moon must be just
as large and as far away as each person thinks it is. The thing to do is find out how
big princess Lenore thinks it is, and how far away."

"I never thought of that," said the king.

"I will go to her, your majesty," said the court jester. And he crept softly into
the little girl's room.

Princess Lenore was awake, and she was glad to see the court jester, but her face was
very pale and her voice very weak.

"Have you brought the moon to me?" she asked.

"Not yet," said the court jester, "but I will get it for you right away. How big do
you think it is?"

"It is a little smaller than my thumbnail," she said, "for when I hold my thumbnail
up at the moon, it covers it."

"And how far away is it?" asked the court jester.

"It is not as high as the big tree outside my window," said the princess, "for sometimes
it gets caught in the top branches."

"It will be very easy to get the moon for you," said the court jester. "I will climb
the tree tonight when it gets caught in the top branches and bring it to you."

Then he thought of something else. "What is the moon made of, princess?" he asked.

"Oh, " she said, "it's made of gold, of course, silly."

Sometimes the moon is warm and large and golden, sometimes cold and small and silver. It dominates the night, stealing light from the sun to draw attention to itself and away from the stars. Or it turns its face gradually to the wall, ignoring the sun, the stars and us until the mood passes, and just as gradually pivots its full, plump countenance back, confident to be yet again the center of attention.

On July 20, 1969, the moon had a visit from the planet it had been surveying from time out of mind. A mortal took a small step and had a chance to see the universe from the moon's perspective.
And behold, it was very good.


Lori said...

That was a new story for me. You step into science in a most pleasant manner, Prude.

Robin J. Steinweg said...

Goosebumps. Oh, to set one's foot on a piece of creation never before set foot on. Thank you for this Prude's-eye view!