Review: Absorbing new science fact book shoots for the ‘Moon’

Nothing has preoccupied humanity quite like our fascination with the moon.

From ancient artifacts and cuneiform scribblings to social media and scheming tech bros, evidence of lunar allure has never waned. Explorers, worshipers, inventors, politicians, dreamers, scientists, artists and zealots all have been inspired by its presence and potential. And even when we aren’t acting on our interest in the moon, the moon is acting on us.

Science journalist Rebecca Boyle’s debut book of nonfiction, “Our Moon,” explores a medley of selenic stories, instances when astronomy, history, religion, evolution and other subjects were shaped by the literal and figurative gravity of Earth’s sole satellite. The book’s range is broad, touching on events during the first moments of the universe up through the total solar eclipse in 2017.

Some chapters emerge from firsthand reporting, while others more closely resemble what you might find in a Western Civ textbook, but Boyle’s exuberance remains consistent throughout. She’s had a lifelong interest in the moon, and that passion is evident on every page, whether she’s writing about stepping into a stone circle in Scotland or staring down at her favorite moon rock in a NASA “clean room.”

A contributor to Scientific American and the Atlantic, Boyle targets general audiences here, and while that occasionally leads to remedial pronouncements like, “Any classroom globe will show you the poles and the equator,” there is something for everyone in “Our Moon.” (I’m not a parent, but I think a precocious teenager could navigate most of it.)

While I was familiar with much of the discussion around the Apollo missions or figures like Ptolemy and Galileo, Boyle pays special attention to personalities that have been historically elided, like Enheduanna, a Mesopotamian High Priestess of the Moon God who was perhaps the world’s first poet.

Other absorbing sections include discoveries related to horology, the science of time. Boyle visits an Irish couple who, in 2004, began excavating a Scottish site called Warren Field. Among their discoveries were a dozen large pits that originated more than 10,000 years ago and were oriented such that they seem to represent one of the earliest examples of humans marking time via phases of the moon. (Bafflingly, the pits were subsequently backfilled, to “keep curious tourists, rabbits, and other visitors away.”)

Boyle is at her best describing thorny scientific concepts, especially during a vibrant discussion of the surprisingly contemporary debate surrounding the moon’s creation. Explaining a synestia, the codependent swirl resulting from the annihilating collision between vanished planets Theia and Earth 1.0, Boyle writes that the newly formed Earth and moon emerged “like eggs poached in a pot of boiling water.”

The book’s emphasis on the primacy of the moon is intensified by a tendency to ascribe agency to the rocky orb. The moon is “Earth’s biographer.” It “caused cosmological misunderstandings” and “endow[ed] us with religion.” If you, like me, find sleep fleeting or futile whenever the gleaming face of the full moon peeps obtrusively into your window, you’ll already know that our nearest neighbor can exert some truly powerful effects. Boyle’s book reveals just how genuinely earth-shattering our moon has been.