The day the Sun shone a little fake wonder on the moon
It might have been fake news, but the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 tried to bring us together as humans
On this day in 1835 the British astronomer Sir John Herschel, observing the clear, dark heavens from his temporary home in Cape Town on the southeastern slopes of Table Mountain, using an enormous telescope 7m in diameter and weighing seven tons, discovered life on the moon.
This was a big deal. Sir John was one of the most famous and celebrated scientists in the world – his father William had discovered Uranus (which is the kind of fact schoolboys like to make their teacher say aloud), and Sir John had arrived in the clear Cape air in 1834 to conduct observations of Halley’s Comet and to gaze upon the deep mysteries of the cosmos.
When the Beagle stopped in Cape Town the young Charles Darwin conducted a pilgrimage to meet Sir John. They spent many happy hours yarning about the mysteries of life, and Darwin would have been as astonished and delighted as everyone else when Sir John put his eye to his eyepiece and uncovered the origin of entirely new species there in the glittering realms above.
Unfortunately, Charles Darwin didn’t know about Sir John’s discoveries, because he was not a subscriber to the New York Sun. The Sun was one of the new penny papers, an exciting leap forward in information technology: they were cheap and widely distributed, making news and information available to everyone. They were a radical experiment in democratising news, promising a bright and better new world in which facts and opinions were made available to all and in which everyone could have a voice.
I don’t want to belabour any comparisons between the penny papers and the internet, but I suspect that if Donald Trump had been around in 1835, he would have written frequent letters to the New York Sun.
The news from the Cape was printed in six separate bulletins. In the second dispatch, Herschel reported discovering geographic features on the moon: lush vegetation, forests and glades, waterfalls and pastures and, most excitingly, a chain of slender pyramids. Then came life, different to life on Earth but reassuringly familiar: herds of placid shaggy moon-bison; a peaceful valley roamed by flocks of single-horned goats, their coats the shimmering metallic blue of smooth-cast lead.
In the next dispatch he observed stranger things still: fields of blazing moon poppies, miniature zebra, a beaver that walked on two legs, cradling its young in its arms. The fourth dispatch really had the crowds talking: Sir John Herschel had discovered four-foot human creatures who flew around on bat wings, rather like angels. The man-bats, he assured New Yorkers, were an innocent race, happy and cooperative, living in a state of gentle bliss very different to the world Americans endured, in which the people were rancorously divided and political tensions were slowly ramping toward the eruption of the Civil War.
Americans were very taken by these columns from the Cape. Debate raged and circulation grew. Soon the Sun had the highest sales in the city, and then it became the most popular newspaper in the world. To know about the moon, you had to read the Sun. Other rival and responsible publications rushed to debunk the story, of course, chiding readers for being so foolish as to swallow this tall glass of moonshine, offering them alternative moon-stories instead – stories that were even more readable, just as rigorously scientific.
It was a time of deep wonder – people happily lifted their eyes from the depressing humdrum of politics to stare enraptured at distant worlds that might be happier than this one. Those who believed the story argued with those who didn’t, but they argued with seriousness of intent: they argued about how much of it might be true, and what else might be discovered, they argued about what it meant for humanity and the world and whether one day we might visit such a place or recreate such a place here. They argued about what we might achieve, and what we have lost, whether the moon was our past or our future. In all the letters published on the subject, there is no evidence of anyone writing in to insult or ruin the career or send death threats to anyone who believed something different.
This is why although it might be considered to be the first faint streak of light in the night sky portending the meteor-shower of fake news that pummels our protective atmosphere today, threatening a new informational dark age (the editor of the Sun, Richard Adams Locke, later claimed to have written the series as a satire commenting on the diluting influence of religion on science), still I am very fond of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, and not only because it is one of the few splendid stories from the time that has SA at its centre.
Whatever its other motivations in the service of satire or circulation, the Great Moon Hoax tried to spread wonder not fear, awe not anger. It tried to bring us together as humans standing shoulder to shoulder and staring at the sky, seeing something better than ourselves and so finding something better in ourselves. A good hoax is its own reward, but the best kind of hoax is one that is truer than its facts.