Saturday, January 12, 2008


During my first Aikido involvement, I used to repair to a bar in Berkeley after training, to, um, replenish body fluids I’d lost from the exercise. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The bar, Shattuck Avenue Spats, had two entrances, one in the front, the other leading out back to the parking lot. One evening I left by the back entrance and was confronted by a full moon in full “horizon effect,” its image close to the tops of the nearby buildings and looking close enough to reach out an touch.

I stopped dead in my tracks for several seconds, just marveling at it. Then, I noticed what I had just done and got curious.

I went over and got into my car, but I just sat there for another 15 minutes or so, watching people as they came out of the bar. Many of them stopped, just like I did, and gazed at the moon for a second. Others pointed it out to their companions. A few became very animated, even to the point of doing a little dance, or otherwise expressing physical excitement.

There have been a fair number of studies attempting to document the “full moon effect,” the notion that crimes get weirder, emergency rooms more crowded, and things generally just get stranger, around the time of the full moon. To the best of my knowledge, none of these studies has ever found a relationship between the full moon and abnormal behavior.

By the same token, and to the best of my knowledge, these studies never correct for whether or not the moon is actually visible on the nights in question. No one has tested the idea that it is the sight of the full moon that affects people, in other words.

Yet the sight of the full moon clearly does affect people. Songs have been written about it; it appears in art and literature.

This seems to be part of that unconscious, social bias in science that I’ve mentioned before. Certain hypotheses are more easily addressed than others. The bias extends to pseudo-science as well. People have a lot of water; the oceans are water; the moon affects the oceans by raising tides. Maybe the moon affects people the same way. That’s considered an acceptable hypothesis to test (and debunk).

The moon affects people through aesthetic influence does not seem to be a readily acceptable hypothesis. It’s subjective. Science is objective; it doesn’t like being reminded of the subjective.

It’s a blind spot, a lacuna. Rhymes with Luna.


black dog barking said...

Yeah, any incidence of lunar-based lunacy would have to be triggered by the sight of the full moon. (Or does the actual mass vary over the lunar cycle?) Good idea. Re-run the test data sets of those studies comparing full moon periods based on atmospheric visibility conditions.

One evening in the early 80s I was driving eastbound on I-80 across central Nebraska when there appeared on the distant horizon a brilliant orange light source of a distinctly mushroom-like shape. It was hard to judge the distance but the direction was on a line that passed very near Omaha and more importantly, the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Bellevue. It took several long moments before the mushroom shape resolved into a more familiar night sky object, Harvest, if you believe wiki.

JP Stormcrow said...

I never thought of that, but yes it does seem to be the actual sight of a full moon which is noticeable. In our family someone (sometimes me) will invariably say "Oh look, a full moon!" I have no idea what is so literally remarkable about it, but it invariably causes one of us to comment.

"I See a Big Moon a-Rising" is one of my favorite natural optical illusions. The best "proof" that I have used to show that it is but illusion is to hold a coin at a length from you sufficient to just barely obscure the moon. Do it at moonrise and later, and sure enough—the same distance from your eye works no matter where the moon.

black dog barking said...

Hey, JP, your moon illusion reminds me of a short commercial plane trip I took in the early 90s, a quick hop from Denver to Salt Lake. It was a winter night, nothing to see below except dark. Way off to the north was a perfect and brilliant white cresent moon whose clarity must have been enhanced by the absence of 5 or 6 miles of the densest part of the atmosphere. So I just relaxed for an hour and stared at that Arctic moon and the lights of occasional Wyoming settlements far below. Communing.

Until, when we turned north to land at Salt Lake, my crescent moon buddy swung around from due North to due East. Turns out I'd been communing with a white incandescent bulb on the tip of the right wing of the plane. The crescent shape was the part of a circular white bulb not blocked by the shape of the wing. Like James says, whatever lunacy we connect with the moon, the crazy part we carry with us everywhere we go.

black dog barking said...

(Okay, another moon story. Quite likely my last.)

1989, one of those rare and lovely high summer evenings still in transition, light-ish to the far west and dark in the east. I was carrying my just turned one year old; we were going for a short (he was heavy, very big for his age) walk / ride to honor the evening. At the corner I stopped, looked up through the trees across the street, spied a full you know what. "Oh look," I said reflexively, "the moon."

And I looked down to see if he understood what I was talking about. He'd already raised his right arm and was pointing. "Moo" he said or something a lot like that.

Now, officially, he'd already uttered his First Word, "cah-owww" for CowKitty the family cat. (Cow-boy, cow-girl, cow-kitty; get it? Neither does anyone else.) But both Official Judges secretly suspected an element of tampering by the parents. In contrast this was a slam dunk see-and-say word.

The world-baby-word connection was promptly reproduced with witness and eventually commemorated — his mother made a special pillow and blanket that he used until they fell apart.

The point being, for this discussion, anecdotal observation of the full moon's special connection with human visual perception hardware / software. Even brand new humans.

James Killus said...

There's an easier way to disprove the horizon illusion. Bend over and look at the Moon upside down. It returns to its usual size.

Or at least it does to me and other observers.