Thursday, March 26, 2015

For some reason, this morning I found myself thinking about scams and hoaxes involving space exploration



That lead me inevitably to this New York Sun headline from 1835

GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
LATELY MADE
BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.
At the Cape of Good Hope
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

From Wikipedia:
The articles described fantastic animals on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tail-less beavers and bat-like winged humanoids ("Vespertilio-homo") who built temples. There were trees, oceans and beaches. These discoveries were supposedly made with "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle."
...
Eventually, the authors announced that the observations had been terminated by the destruction of the telescope, by means of the Sun causing the lens to act as a "burning glass," setting fire to the observatory




And from Mr. E.A. Poe:

About twelve years ago, I think, “The New York Sun,” a daily paper, price one penny, was established in the city of New York by Mr. Moses [column 2:] Y. Beach, who engaged Mr. Richard Adams Locke as its editor. In a well-written prospectus, the object of the journal professed to be that of “supplying the public with the news of the day at so cheap a rate as to lie within the means of all.” The consequences of the scheme, in their influence on the whole newspaper business of the country, and through this business on the interests of the country at large, are probably beyond all calculation.

Previous to “The Sun” there had been an unsuccessful attempt at publishing a penny paper in New York, and “The Sun” itself was originally projected and for a short time issued by Messrs. Day & Wisner; its establishment, however, is altogether due to Mr. Beach, who purchased it of its disheartened originators. The first decided movement of the journal, nevertheless, is to be attributed to Mr. Locke; and in so saying I by no means intend any depreciation of Mr. Beach, since in the engagement of Mr. L. he had but given one of the earliest instances of that unusual sagacity for which I am inclined to yield him credit.

At all events, “The Sun” was revolving in a comparatively narrow orbit when, one fine day, there appeared in its editorial columns a prefatory article announcing very remarkable astronomical discoveries made at the Cape of Good Hope by Sir John Herschell. The information was said to have been received by “The Sun” from an early copy of “The Edinburgh Journal of Science,” in which appeared a communication from Sir John himself. This preparatory announcement took very well, (there had been no hoaxes in those days,) and was followed by full details of the reputed discoveries, which were now found to have been made chiefly in respect to the moon, and by means of a telescope to which the one lately constructed by the Earl of Rosse is a plaything. As these discoveries were gradually spread before the public, the astonishment of that public grew out of all bounds; but those who questioned the veracity of “The Sun” — the authenticity of the communication to “The Edinburgh Journal of Science” — were really very few indeed; and this I am forced to look upon as a far more wonderful thing than any “man-bat” of them all.

About six months before this occurrence the Harpers had issued an American edition of Sir John Herschell’s “Treatise on Astronomy,” and I had been much interested in what is there said respecting the possibility of future lunar investigations. The theme excited my fancy, and I longed to give free rein to it in depicting my day-dreams about the scenery of the moon — in short, I longed to write a story embodying these dreams. The obvious difficulty, of course, was that of accounting for the narrator’s acquaintance with the satellite; and the equally obvious mode of surmounting the difficulty was the supposition of an extraordinary telescope. I saw at once that the chief interest of such a narrative must depend upon the reader’s yielding his credence in some measure as [page 160:] to details of actual fact. At this stage of my deliberations I spoke of the design to one or two friends — to Mr. John P. Kennedy, the author of “Swallow Barn,” among others — and the result of my conversations with them was that the optical difficulties of constructing such a telescope as I conceived were so rigid and so commonly understood, that it would be in vain to attempt giving due verisimilitude to any fiction having the telescope as a basis. Reluctantly, therefore, and only half convinced, (believing the public, in fact, more readily gullible than did my friends,) I gave up the idea of imparting very close verisimilitude to what I should write — that is to say, so close as really to deceive. I fell back upon a style half plausible[[,]] half bantering, and resolved to give what interest I could to an actual passage from the earth to the moon, describing the lunar scenery as if surveyed and personally examined by the narrator. In this view I wrote a story which I called “Hans Phaall,” publishing it about six months afterwards in “The Southern Literary Messenger,” of which I was then editor.

It was three weeks after the issue of “The Messenger” containing “Hans Phaall,” that the first of the “Moon-hoax” editorials made its appearance in “The Sun,” and no sooner had I seen the paper than I understood the jest, which not for a moment could I doubt had been suggested by my own jeu d’esprit. Some of the New York journals (“The Transcript” among others) saw the matter in the same light, and published the “Moon story” side by side with “Hans Phaall,” thinking that the author of the one had been detected in the author of the other. Although the details are, with some exception, very dissimilar, still I maintain that the general features of the two compositions are nearly identical. Both are hoaxes, (although one is in a tone of mere banter, the other of downright earnest;) both hoaxes are on one subject, astronomy; both on the same point of that subject, the moon; both professed to have derived exclusive information from a foreign country, and both attempt to give plausibility by minuteness of scientific detail. Add to all this that nothing of a similar nature had ever been attempted before these two hoaxes, the one of which followed immediately upon the heels of the other.

Having stated the case, however, in this form, I am bound to do Mr. Locke the justice to say that he denies having seen my article prior to the publication of his own; I am bound to add, also, that I believe him.

Immediately on the completion of the “Moon story,” (it was three or four days in getting finished,) I wrote an examination of its claims to credit, showing distinctly its fictitious character, but was astonished at finding that I could obtain few listeners, so really eager were all to be deceived, so magical were the charms of a style that served as the vehicle of an exceedingly clumsy invention.

It may afford even now some amusement to see pointed out those particulars of the hoax which [column 2:] should have sufficed to establish its real character. Indeed, however rich the imagination displayed in this fiction, it wanted much of the force which might have been given it by a more scrupulous attention to general analogy and to fact. That the public were misled, even for an instant, merely proves the gross ignorance which (ten or twelve years ago) was so prevalent on astronomical topics.

The moon’s distance from the earth is, in round numbers, 240,000 miles. If we wish to ascertain how near, apparently, a lens would bring the satellite, (or any distant object,) we, of course, have but to divide the distance by the magnifying, or, more strictly, by the space-penetrating power of the glass. Mr. Locke gives his lens a power of 42,000 times. By this divide 240,000, (the moon’s real distance,) and we have five miles and five-sevenths as the apparent distance. No animal could be seen so far, much less the minute points particularized in the story. Mr. L. speaks about Sir John Herschell’s perceiving flowers, (the papaver Rheas, etc.), and even detecting the color and the shape of the eyes of small birds. Shortly before, too, the author himself observes that the lens would not render perceptible objects less than eighteen inches in diameter; but even this, as I have said, is giving the glass far too great a power.

On page 18, (of the pamphlet edition,) speaking of “a hairy veil” over the eyes of a species of bison, Mr. L. says — “It immediately occurred to the acute mind of Doctor Herschell that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the great extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.” But this should not be thought a very “acute” observation of the Doctor’s. The inhabitants of our side of the moon have, evidently, no darkness at all; in the absence of the sun they have a light from the earth equal to that of thirteen full moons, so that there can be nothing of the extremes mentioned.

The topography throughout, even when professing to accord with Blunt’s Lunar Chart, is at variance with that and all other lunar charts, and even at variance with itself. The points of the compass, too, are in sad confusion; the writer seeming to be unaware that, on a lunar map, these are not in accordance with terrestrial points — the east being to the left, and so forth.

Deceived, perhaps, by the vague titles Mare Nubium, Mare Tranquilitatis, Mare F√¶cunditatis, etc., given by astronomers of former times to the dark patches on the moon’s surface, Mr. L. has long details respecting oceans and other large bodies of water in the moon; whereas there is no astronomical point more positively ascertained than that no such bodies exist there. In examining the boundary between light and darkness in a crescent or gibbous moon, where this boundary crosses any of the dark places, the line of division is found to be jagged; but were these dark places liquid they would evidently be even. [page 161:]

The description of the wings of the man-bat (on page 21) is but a literal copy of Peter Wilkins’ account of the wings of his flying islanders. This simple fact should at least have induced suspicion.

On page 23 we read thus — “What a prodigious influence must our thirteen times larger globe have exercised upon this satellite when an embryo in the womb of time, the passive subject of chemical affinity!” Now, this is very fine; but it should be observed that no astronomer could have made such a remark, especially to any “Journal of Science,” for the earth in the sense intended (that of bulk) is not only thirteen but forty-nine times larger than the moon. A similar objection applies to the five or six concluding pages of the pamphlet, where, by way of introduction to some discoveries in Saturn, the philosophical correspondent is made to give a minute school-boy account of that planet — an account quite supererogatory, it might be presumed, in the case of “The Edinburgh Journal of Science.”

But there is one point, in especial, which should have instantly betrayed the fiction. Let us imagine the power really possessed of seeing animals on the moon’s surface — what in such case would first arrest the attention of an observer from the earth? Certainly neither the shape, size, nor any other peculiarity in these animals so soon as their remarkable position — they would seem to be walking heels up and head down, after the fashion of flies on a ceiling. The real observer (however prepared by previous knowledge) would have commented on this odd phenomenon before proceeding to other details; the fictitious observer has not even alluded to the subject, but in the case of the man-bats speaks of seeing their entire bodies, when it is demonstrable that he could have seen little more than the apparently flat hemisphere of the head.

I may as well observe, in conclusion, that the size and especially the powers of the man-bats (for example, their ability to fly in so rare an atmosphere — if, indeed, the moon has any) with most of the other fancies in regard to animal and vegetable existence, are at variance generally with alt [[all]] analogical reasoning on these themes, and that analogy here will often amount to the most positive demonstration. The temperature of the moon, for instance, is rather above that of boiling water, and Mr. Locke, consequently, has committed a serious oversight in not representing his man-bats, his bisons, his game of all kinds — to say nothing of his vegetables — as each and all done to a turn.

It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to add, that all the suggestions attributed to Brewster and Herschell in the beginning of the hoax, about the “transfusion of artificial light through the focal object of vision,” etc. etc., belong to that species of figurative writing which comes most properly under the head of rigmarole. There is a real and very definite limit to optical discovery among the stars, a limit whose nature need only be stated to be understood. If, indeed, the casting of large [column 2:] lenses were all that is required, the ingenuity of man would ultimately prove equal to the task, and we might have them of any size demanded;* but, unhappily, in proportion to the increase of size in the lens, and consequently of space-penetrating power, is the diminution of light from the object by diffusion of the rays. And for this evil there is no remedy within human reach; for an object is seen by means of that light alone, whether direct or reflected, which proceeds from the object itself. Thus the only artificial light which could avail Mr. Locke would be such as he should be able to throw, not upon “the focal object of vision,” but upon the moon. It has been easily calculated that when the light proceeding from a heavenly body becomes so diffused as to be as weak as the natural light given out by the stars collectively in a clear, moonless night, then the heavenly body for any practical purpose is no longer visible.

The singular blunders to which I have referred being properly understood, we shall have all the better reason for wonder at the prodigious success of the hoax. Not one person in ten discredited it, and (strangest point of all!) the doubters were chiefly those who doubted without being able to say why — the ignorant, those uninformed in astronomy, people who would not believe because the thing was so novel, so entirely “out of the usual way.” A grave professor of mathematics in a Virginian college told me seriously that he had no doubt of the truth of the whole affair! The great effect wrought upon the public mind is referable, first, to the novelty of the idea; secondly, to the fancy-exciting and reason-repressing character of the alleged discoveries; thirdly, to the consummate tact with which the deception was brought forth; fourthly, to the exquisite vraisemblance of the narration. The hoax was circulated to an immense extent, was translated into various languages — was even made the subject of (quizzical) discussion in astronomical societies; drew down upon itself the grave denunciation of Dick, and was, upon the whole, decidedly the greatest hit in the way of sensation — of merely popular sensation — ever made by any similar fiction either in America or in Europe.

Having read the Moon story to an end and found it anticipative of all the main points of my “Hans Phaall,” I suffered the latter to remain unfinished. The chief design in carrying my hero to the moon was to afford him an opportunity of describing the lunar scenery, but I found that he could add very little to the minute and authentic account of Sir John Herschell. The first part of “Hans Phaall,” occupying about eighteen pages of “The Messenger,” embraced merely a journal of the passage between the two orbs and a few words of general [page 162:] observation on the most obvious features of the satellite; the second part will most probably never appear. I did not think it advisable even to bring my voyager back to his parent earth. He remains where I left him, and is still, I believe, “the man in the moon.”


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