A fragment of supermoon art found by the good Bernard Keane
A fragment of supermoon art found by the good Bernard Keane on social media

We were made fools of in our millions last night over the so called ‘supermoon’.

People drove in suburban sized migrations to vantage points on beach side cliffs and sands to see the full moon rise at the very moment it was closest to the earth in a coincidence not seen since 1948, and not to recur until 2034.

Except that the exact moment didn’t occur until about 53 minutes past midnight in Sydney or Melbourne, or seven minutes to midnight in Queensland, and given the speed with which the moon moves in its orbit toward its fullest fullness, everyone saw a nice, typical, bright but non super full moon wherever the skies were clear, and were probably home in bed by the time the most over hyped astronomical event of the century actually occurred.

Not that it would have looked any brighter. This is the second of three supermoons of 2016, the last being next month. Back when supermoons were called perigee full moons no one had hysterics about them. Perigee full moons occur at or close to the moment when the moon also happened to be nearest to us measured as the distance between the very centre of one heavenly body to the very centre of the other.

Perigee isn’t a sexy word. Superanything is. It became guaranteed sucker bait last night that had the virtue of getting much of the country out of the house and into a traffic jam at some otherwise romantic moonlit locations where lovers might find peace and privacy from the maddening crowds, anytime but last night.

The whole piss take quickly got out of hand. So much so that the ABC did an interview with Dr Brad Tucker of the ANU in which he talked with good humored mischief about the supermoon being something like the ‘superist, dooperist super supermoon of all’ and it went right through to the keeper.

We’d like to consult the ABC transcript of that interview, but as part of the dumbing down of the broadcaster, it no longer does transcripts. On this occasion, this may be just as well.

It has been instructive to watch the various ‘science commentators’ appear on the media to discuss ‘supermoons’ with alarmingly uninformed or unresearched reporters or program anchors. Some like the good Dr Tucker heroically resisted the king tide of hyperbole that the supermoon pulled up, but maybe he was too subtle in his approach.

The closest gap between the very centre of the earth and the very centre of the moon is 363,104 kilometres, and the widest possible gap for the elongated orbit the moon follows around the earth is 405,696 kilometres.

These distances between us and the moon have to be reduced by the sum of the radius of each body, and those values come with significant variations. The closest you can be while standing on earth to the surface of the moon would be on the summit of glacier covered 6310 metre high Mount Chimborazo during a lunar perigee because the earth isn’t a perfect circular body but an oblate spheroid. This puts the lofty volcano in Ecuador further from the centre of the earth, and thus closer to the vagaries of the lunar orbit, than Everest (almost 2000 metres higher) in Nepal, even though the Goddess Mother of the Snows of the Himalayas is earth’s highest peak measured by its altitude above mean sea level.

‘Supermoon’, a name invented by an astrologer in the 70s, and seized upon by the wide boys or girls in NASA PR, is even sillier than it first seems because the moon always passes through its closest distance to the earth at least 12 to 13 times each year. It’s an orbit thing.

Maybe the lunatics that latched onto the ‘supermoon’ will realise that sometimes when the moon is closest to the earth it can obscure the sun, and cast its shadow across the lands in a total solar eclipse, thus providing us with the ‘scariest moon’ of all, if the population is sufficiently ignorant to fall for a label the way it did last night. (Note that solar eclipses depend on other factors as well.)

We’ll see such a ‘scarymoon’ cross the benighted United States next year in a total solar eclipse, and one will no doubt terrify the susceptible laity of Australia come one fateful day in July 2028 when the black moon swallows the sun right across a diagonal swathe of the continent, including much of Sydney, and part of the south island of New Zealand.

The new ignorance of the 21st century could be fun.

PS. The wilful ignorance in the ABC Newsroom continues, with the statement this morning after the mass hysterics that the moon was the closest to earth at any time since 1948. The moon comes this close to the earth during every orbit of the earth. But it’s the first time in 68 years that it touched that point of its orbit when it was also ‘full.’ How hard is basic factual journalism for the ABC?

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