Karen Patricia Heath (Rothermere American Institute), Sarah Griffin (formerly Oxford Internet Institute), Neil Bowles (Department of Physics), Jon Wade and Isobel Walker (Department of Earth Sciences) and Stuart Ackland (Maps curator at the Bodleian), share the treasures they assembled for an exhibition inspired by the Apollo XI Moon landings.
2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first crewed mission to land on the Moon. To celebrate this seminal moment in modern history, we came together, across the disciplines of science and the humanities, to create ‘We Look to the Moon’ at the Bodleian Library.
The exhibition that we co-curated utilises the extraordinary holdings and curatorial expertise of the Bodleian Library to explore how humanity has engaged with and understood the Moon throughout history and across cultures. Spanning art, history and science, the display — extended via interactive and online content — explores the Moon’s influence on human culture and the significance of lunar research being undertaken in Oxford today.
In 1969, a small band of explorers took an immense risk to touch down on, and explore our nearest celestial neighbour, whilst the rest of the world held their collective breath. This was one of very few historical events that was a shared human experience, made possible by pioneering telecommunications technology beaming images directly into people’s living rooms.
As the following selections from the We Look to the Moon exhibit show, the Moon has inspired the creation of objects of both astounding visual beauty and important function, particularly in terms of timekeeping and calendrical observation. We also look to the future through current lunar exploration missions and see how scientists at the University of Oxford are contributing to this new era of lunar science.
Astrological tool (England, after 1387)
The earliest lunar object in the exhibition is an astronomical-astrological instrument from the Middle Ages. Such devices are often called ‘volvelles’, coming from the Latin word volvere (meaning ‘to turn’). Made up of rotatable disks, the volvelle is found in a manuscript on the calendar by the English astronomer, John Somer (died c. 1409). Not only does the device allow the user to determine astronomical information through the tracking of the Sun and Moon, it also had a medical use. The naked figure below, a Zodiac Man, illustrates how each body part is related to a zodiac sign. The accompanying text warns physicians against operating on a body part when the Moon is in its associated sign. After reckoning the position of the Moon using the volvelle, the medieval practitioner could consult the Zodiac Man to decide when to perform a treatment.
This one folio expresses incredibly complex ideas about medieval science and thought, whilst indicating the centrality of the Moon to medical and philosophical ideas about the body during this time. The video above, made to accompany the display, explains these ideas and demonstrates how the rotation of the disks show the changing phases of the Moon.
Full video, written and voiced by Sarah Griffin, with assistance from Nicole Gilroy, available on Cabinet.
The not so ‘dark side’ (Oxford, c. early 1960s)
The reverse of this lovely lunar globe is blank because it was unknown. The Russian satellite Lunik 3 had only recently orbited and photographed the lunar far side in 1959 and the initial images returned were of rather poor quality and were still being analysed at the time that this globe was being produced.
From the earliest maps of the Moon, cartographers have endeavoured to show as much surface area as possible, notably by mapping those areas visible when the Moon tilts on its axis as it orbits the Earth. This helps to create a mapped image greater than the view of the Moon that we see on any given night. The ‘Oxford globe’ takes advantage of both this cartographic ability as well as the early data provided by Lunik 3. Subsequent orbits by Soviet satellites, and then, from 1965 onwards, by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter programme, provided us with better, and more detailed images. However, it was not until the Apollo VIII mission orbited the Moon for the first time in 1968 that we were able to see the far side in its entirety.
Looking to the future
Oxford scientists are working with NASA and the European Space Agency to help plan for the next phase of lunar exploration. Components, made at the Universities of Oxford, Reading, and Cardiff, are spares for the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment on board NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. This infrared radiometer was launched in June 2009 and is currently mapping the Moon. The Diviner instrument was named after its initial purpose to search for possible regions of water ice on the lunar surface, and it has enabled us to learn much more about our Moon. From lunar orbit, the Diviner instrument has found some of the coldest naturally occurring regions in our Solar System (<230 C).
In the permanently shaded craters at the lunar poles the temperatures are low enough that any water ice present would have been trapped for (potentially) billions of years. This new information is useful for determining landing sites for future human and robotic exploration. Upcoming missions include a new orbiting spacecraft to help globally map water on the Moon’s surface and working as part of the science team for a joint Russian/ESA lander in the mid-2020s.
Just as the Moon has inspired humans in the past, the outpouring of celebrations in 2019 has demonstrated our enduring fascination with all things lunar. The Moon, ever present in our night skies, has a central role in both the evolution of our planet and human culture. When we look to the Moon, we imagine all that humanity has, and will, achieve.
We Look to the Moon, Bodleian Library, until 15 September 2019
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