NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – http://wms.lroc.asu.edu/lroc_browse/view/WAC_GL000
Alun Anderson, scientist, on the Moon.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
AA Lately, I spend a lot of time on Dartmoor where it’s very dark at night and I have the feeling that I’ve begun to see the moon again for the first time. I live in a pretty dark spot so at night there’s no other light but the moon and stars. There’s even a comet spotter who lives not far from me in a very dark valley. Walking the lanes at night, seeing the way the moon is suspended in the sky, I wonder how I ever forgot the beauty of the moon.
GB Did the 50th anniversary of the moon landing influence your choice?
AA No, not at all. It’s the magic of the moon and the very special quality of moonlight that fascinates me. It’s that kind of grey blue it has, and because it’s a very low light it brings out a different sort of perception that comes from the rods in your eyes rather than the cones. You see a contrast that is quite different. There’s an artist called Katie Paterson who recently had an exhibition in Turner Contemporary and she has a bit of an obsession with the moon. She developed with Osram, the lightbulb company, a bulb that perfectly replicates the quality of moonlight. The strange thing is, you get exactly the same feeling from it. It’s astonishing. Everything you look at is somehow transformed.
GB Apparently, in daylight, we perceive outlines of objects first, but perhaps in moonlight we see shadows more?
AA I think you see flat surfaces more. Coming out of a country lane and looking over a gate, you inevitably see a fox or something running across the field, and it’s almost like a cartoon in its flatness and tone.
GB And is it more magical because it’s so quiet on Dartmoor?
AA Yes, obviously the quiet goes with it. Also, walking at night without needing a torch because the moon is up is also very special. You’re not disturbing other creatures, so you see far more. We don’t inhabit the night world much, of foxes, bats and badgers. You come across snuffling beasts.
GB Is it ever frightening?
AA No, the only thing to be frightened of is other humans, to be honest.
GB There’s no beast of Dartmoor?
AA Funnily enough, there was another sighting of the so-called beast a few weeks ago. There are still people who think there’s a panther out there, but I haven’t seen it.
GB There are so many news stories about the imminent possibility of commercial travel to the moon. Would you go?
AA It depends on the level of stress and discomfort but if there was a chance to see the moon close up and possibly land on it, that would be incredible.
GB And the Israelis have a moon lander that’s supposed to land on the moon today. But I read that it can only survive for a few days before the sun melts it. So, conditions there are really hostile?
AA If it’s day on the moon it is extremely hot. At night it is bitterly cold. So those space suits the Apollo team wore had a lot of coolers built into them.
GB Why is there a rush to build on the moon now?
AA There are people who think that there are extremely rare materials up on the moon, or even on asteroids. Asteroid mining is the big one. They can contain rare materials we can’t find much of on earth. These people want to find metal-rich asteroids and bring them back to earth. NASA and ESA and the Japanese space programme have all demonstrated that you can fly up to an asteroid, travelling through space, keep alongside it and land things on it. Just last week a Japanese spacecraft flew alongside an asteroid and fired a little bomb at it to see what it was made of. Of course, the commercial guys have seen an opportunity here.
GB The moon feels as though it’s almost part of the earth in the sense that it influences our tides and affects the tilt of the earth. Do you feel that way about it?
AA I feel that its remoteness is somehow very special. We feel very close to it but somehow there’s something strangely remote about it. I like that. You can look up at it and feel that it’s looking down on you yet it’s indifferent to us. It’s this peculiar thing of an object that’s beautiful yet utterly indifferent. The philosopher, Schopenhauer, once wrote about this: “Eternally foreign to earthly doings, it moves on, sees all and is involved in nothing.” We can’t reach this thing but somehow, it’s up there seeing everything and doing nothing. But on the other hand, the space programme, with pictures and maps like this, have allowed us to see the moon and the crater history in intimate detail. Those craters have been forming there for over four billion years and whatever is hitting the moon will also have been hitting the earth at about the same rate. All ours have vanished under the forest and seas, with the movement of our plates, but up there the complete history of everything that’s happened to the moon is still there to see and it’s a real delight to get this intimate knowledge of everything that’s happened to it.
GB Do you recognise parts of it, like the Shackleton crater?
AA I can do, but the main thing for me is to read that history of four billion years through the various craters. It’s all still there.
GB So do you think Mars is the ultimate goal now because we’re looking for another planet to inhabit?
AA Yes. There are definitely people who feel we can do it and Mars would be the right choice because it has a lot of the right things, especially now we know it’s got water. It could be possible to build a tiny habitable environment up there, but it would be hard to get anyone back to earth again until they’ve developed some sort of transport that can be refuelled. It will happen. It only needs one US or Chinese President to say they’re going to do it first and they’ll all start up again.
GB Do you think science has much to tell us about beauty? Or that beauty can point us in the right direction for answers in science or maths?
AA I thinks that’s looking at beauty as a form of elegance. I have a friend called Justin Mullins who makes pictures of mathematical equations laid out on paper that he finds extraordinarily beautiful.
GB Do you find beauty in mystery?
AA I’m entranced by the beauty in the insect life in my meadow here. I know that every insect there has a point of view and is an animal that perceives in a way I don’t, at a scale I don’t, and lives in a way I don’t. But it still has some point of view on the world. I find that incredibly mysterious and beautiful. You sit and watch these things and there are a billion points of view on the world all going on in parallel, just in my meadow. It’s really quite fabulous.
GB If there was one big mystery that could be solved in your lifetime, what would it be?
AA I suppose I’d have to say consciousness. I don’t believe it’s as mysterious as some people think but it’s still an incredibly profound problem. From my point of view, if we had a real understanding of consciousness, we’d realise that it’s something very biological and that there’s consciousness in a vast number of beings, more than we currently allow for. The content of consciousness would be different, like the insects in my meadow with their point of view. The content of consciousness would be provable if we knew how consciousness works.
GB Are you a vegetarian?
GB Do you think we can recognise consciousness when we see it?
AA No. I have a pond with Emperor dragonflies flying around it, hunting, and I feel that their world is quite alien. But then when I see a tank of lobsters, I find it quite upsetting because I feel that those lobsters do have a life and we totally disregard that. I think if we knew the nature of consciousness, this disregard for them would change.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
AA I think it’s something you feel inside you. I think the word probably covers a composite of things. It’s interesting that things that once were not considered beautiful, now are – and vice versa. The Arctic landscape was probably pretty horrible before the concept of the sublime. Everyday objects are more beautiful since photographers like Edward Weston came along.
GB Do you think beauty can help save us from destroying our planet?
AA I believe this very strongly. I wrote a book about the Arctic about ten years ago when we started to really notice that the ice was going. If you look at the earth from space, the top of it is shining white. That’s going to go black. I thought that was a very strong image, but after I’d written the book and given lots of talks on it, I found that it didn’t move people. But when I showed people photos of an Arctic poppy flowering in the unique Arctic deserts that lie alongside frozen seas and told them they that would never see it, that it’s going for ever, people were outraged at that desecration of beauty.