Dewey 999

11 October 2006 | Diary

Manged to catch a bit of The Sky at Night last night. It’s great innit? A real TV institution. I just discovered that you can watch old episodes on the Internet as well, so that solves the problem of constantly missing the show due to its infrequency.

The subject of last night’s episode was lunar craters. After the initial nostalgia-shock of watching Mr. Moore interview other grey-haired scientists (one of whom last night illustrated the crater-making process by firing buckshot into a pudding) and the shots of outer space which would have been unimaginable only twenty years ago, I realised that the topic of lunar craters is so utterly boring and pointless that surely anyone with an interest in the final frontier – about the unknown and unexplored riches and reaches of the universe – would find such locally-focused minutiae a complete waste of astronomical airtime.

When I think of astronomy, the first things that come to mind are the freezing childhood winters during which I would camp out in the back garden with my dad in the hope of seeing Jupiter or a meteorite through our crappy telescope. And then I think of the great, mesmerising cosmic entities of which we know very little: quasars, black holes, distant solar systems. Surely moon craters might be of interest to a geologist or a geographer – but to an astronomer? It strikes me that there are far more interesting and worthy secrets out there to wonder about. It’s infinity dammit! Why spend so much time gawping at the pock-marks on our own grey satellite?

It’s weird that the discipline of astronomy can encompass anything that is vaguely extraterrestrial. Wikipedia defines it as:

“the science of celestial objects (e.g., stars, planets, comets, and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth’s atmosphere (e.g., auroras and cosmic background radiation). It is concerned with the evolution, physics, chemistry, and motion of celestial objects, as well as the formation and development of the universe.”

It’s difficult to see how something as theoretical as “the formation of the universe” and something as elemental as asteroid-spotting can be seen as the same subject. I think Earth scientists should turn their attentions skyward so that the craters of the moon can be looked after by geologists and topographers while the cosmologists can concentrate on finding God’s Andromeda holiday home.

I’m suddenly reminded of the ominous Dewey Decimal Classification Number 999: “Extraterrestrial Worlds”. The study of everything outside of our tiny blue planet is lumped into Dewey 999. Utterly Pre-Copernican.

(A slight exaggeration perhaps. The science of astronomy has a section of its own – 999 focuses upon the geography of extraterrestrial worlds).

But after a brief meditation on the idea of lunar craters, it becomes slightly romantic. The moon is a stopping place for so many bits of space debris – a graveyard of stories. These rocks and bits of astronomical shrapnel have travelled eternities to wind up there. The old “if these walls could speak” maxim comes into play and one wonders about the journeys these bits of rock had before coming to their lunar resting place.

Final thought: when you see those craters on the moon and out in the Mojave Desert, where the hell are the meteorites that made them?

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