I remember being 8 years old, sitting in the back of my parents car with my face pressed against the window. I stared in astonishment at the full moon as it chased us. I strained to keep it in sight, catching glimpses of it between the buildings as we whizzed past. Enthralled, I started thinking about the Moon, about what it was and how it got there.
“What?” my mom said, apparently hearing me mumble.
“Uh, nothing... the Moon. Do you...uh...what is it? I mean... where did it come from?”
“God put it there.”
And that was that. My inquisitive, young mind wanted to know more about what I had been looking at. I wanted to ask When, Where, Why and How but my search for knowledge was brought to an abrupt halt with Who. God, apparently, that's who.
I gave it up. Fortunately for me, the Moon didn't.
One Saturday, the autumn after I graduated from St. Patrick's, I am driving towards home with the sun just dipping under the horizon behind me. As I drive up and over the rise of a hill, I am struck by the sight of a full moon just over the horizon. Huge. Red. It hovered in the far-off distance, centered directly over the road. Awestruck, having never seen the Moon look so big and so red, I slow the car so I can take it all in. I see a darkness creeping onto the left side of the Moon and I have to pull over. I stop the car and watch as the darkness grows, it's leading edge an arc moving slowly across the Moon from left to right. I realize that the amazing vision that I am looking at is an eclipse.
Wide-eyed, I mumble, “Awesome.”
The next day, I headed to what had become my favourite place in the world: the library. Shortly after completing my Catholic-school education, I decided that my Sundays were better spent outside of church. I was largely free of the constant reminders that I was expected to blindly adhere to the teachings of my faith. As such, seeing something as awesome as a full lunar eclipse wouldn't propel me to exclaim how great God was; instead, it would pique my curiosity and drive me to seek further understanding of it's nature. I walked into that cathedral of knowledge that is the public library and looked for the Astronomy section.
I have a daughter now and maybe one evening, when the Moon is full, we'll be walking and she'll excitedly point out that big white ball shining in the night sky. Her curiosity may be piqued in the same way mine was and she may start asking questions the same way I did. The difference is that when my child comes to me with a spark of inquisitiveness, I will not dampen it with non-answers such as “God did it.”
Now I'm no Moonologist or anything but throughout the years, I've picked up bits of knowledge about our biggest satellite and have grown to appreciate the Moon and the intricacies of its existence and it's important relationship with Earth and human life.
If she asks about it, maybe I'll tell her the Moon goes around the Earth, the same way that the Earth and the other planets goes around the Sun. Gravity holds it all together. It pulls things towards other things and bigger things have more gravity and smaller things have less. The Earth is four times bigger than the Moon and much heavier, so gravity is about six times stronger here. That means on the Moon you can jump six times higher! The Moon's gravity also causes the tides because the water that's on the side closer to the Moon gets pulled towards it and rises. The water on the further side feels less of the Moon's gravity so it rises on that side too. The land experiences tides and bulges out too, but we can't really feel it.
Maybe she'll ask what the Moon is made of and I'll tell her that it's made up of the same stuff that the Earth is made of. She'll ask how and I'll tell her that way, way back, when the Earth was brand new, another planet that was about twice the size of the Moon, slammed into Earth. When this happened, tons and tons of dirt and rocks flew up into space. It all started going around the Earth because of gravity. The rocks have gravity too, remember, so they started pulling towards each other and then they got bigger and bigger until eventually, after millions of years, it formed one enormous ball of rock: the Moon.
Before that other planet slammed into the Earth, it was much different from what it looks like now. It was all hot and smoky and there was acid rain and there was no way we could live here if it was still like that. I think the Earth's angle might have been different, too. Now, the Earth is tilted and that's why globes are all slanty. The tilt is what causes the seasons and the weather and the climate. So maybe the same thing that made the Moon (that planet slamming into Earth) made the world a much nicer place and made it possible for life to form and for us to be here staring up at the sky.
She might remark on how bright it looks and I'll tell her that the Moon doesn't actually have it's own light; we see light that comes from the sun and bounces off the Moon towards us. I'll tell her that the Moon looks white, but it's actually a really dark grey and only looks brighter because we look at it against the blackness of space. It looks different on different days because it's going around us and the light from the sun hits it from different sides and we can only see the part that's lit up. Standing there on the sidewalk, I'll pick her up and hold her facing me.
I'll start to spin slowly and say, “You see how the light from the street lamp changes on my face? It's the same thing with the Moon and the Earth.”
“They're dancing too?” she might say.
“Haha, yeah, they're dancing too! The Moon is dancing with the Earth and the Earth and other planets are dancing around the Sun and the Sun and the stars are dancing around our galaxy. It's all just a big, beautiful dance.”
Maybe one night, after she's grown up and struck out on her own, she'll be out walking one night and see the full moon shining brightly. Maybe she'll think about the things I've told her. Maybe she'll think that wherever I am, I might be looking up at that same moon. Hopefully, like her father, she'll be amazed at the wonder and complexity of it all and search for answers that will further her understanding. Doing so, maybe she'll be able to appreciate it all the more. This might lead her to want to understand other things, maybe everything, better and will teach her not to settle for lazy explanations borne out of indoctrination. My own indoctrination lead to many, many years of ignorance. My daughter won't be burdened by religion; she won't come to the same roadblocks. She will have the freedom to seek truth instead of simply being taught “truths.” Thankfully my hunger for knowledge was greater than my faith. They tried to cage me but I broke out and flew off, a universe of discovery ahead of me.
They had told me, "With God, the sky's the limit."
Looking up at the Moon and the stars and at the beauty of it all, I realized they set the bar way too low.