August 11, 2015

The Great Moon Hoax

        This month marks the 180th anniversary of the publication of Sir John Herschel’s most extraordinary discoveries, including the invention of a new telescope 24 feet in diameter and with a hydro-oxygen microscope lens that allowed him to see the surface of the moon in unprecedented detail.  Indeed, it allowed him to discover life on the moon.  The life that was reported included red flowers covering the surface of the rock, bison, bluish grey goats, and an amphibious spherical creature which rolled with great velocity.  Even more extraordinary, Herschel saw tribes of biped beavers that lived in huts and had mastered the use of fire, and finally the Vespertilio-homo, winged humanoids covered with glossy, copper-colored hair.
        Yowza!  These amazing discoveries received widespread press, and created much excitement, as you can imagine.  So how is it that you’ve never heard of these discoveries?  Well, obviously, it all turned out to be a hoax.  (Oops, I guess I gave it away in the title of this post.)  It was, however, one of the greatest and most successful popular scientific hoaxes of all time, and in 1835 perhaps the first mass-media event, driven by the high circulation of the New York Sun with its steam-powered printing presses and its innovative use of newsboys shouting out headlines for all to hear.  Poor Herschel, who was in South Africa at the time, had nothing to do with the hoax.  Apparently he was initially amused when he heard about it, but eventually became irritated at perpetually being pestered about it.
        If you want to know all the details about the hoax, its reception, its author, and the history of the newspaper business which made it possible, check out this article from the Museum of Hoaxes.  One interesting thing about it is that even the many skeptics seem to have enjoyed the story as fiction, rather than being outraged by the inaccuracy and downright dishonesty of the New York Sun.  It seems that the tabloids have always been more about entertainment than truth, and at least exciting science fiction stories are better entertainment than slanderous gossip about unhappy celebrities.  Just hold onto your skepticism when the popular press announces the discovery of biped beavers on Pluto!

[Pictures: Lunar scene, print published in the New York Sun, 1935;
Life on the moon, print from a Welsh edition of the moon hoax (Images from the Hoax Museum).]

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