A small scientific story for today
It was evening. The moon had just risen. Two of the greatest scientists alive today were taking a stroll in their college gardens, beneath the trees. One of the scientists was so senior and so famous that the other one still just called him " Professor ". The other one was called Jim but the Professor had so many matters of purely scientific data to remember that he often failed to mentally record the name of his junior colleagues.
‘Some moon tonight,’ said Jim.
The Professor looked up at it in surprise. It hadn't been there a moment ago.
‘I wonder if they timed these moon landing celebrations to coincide with a full moon,’ said Jim. ‘After all, we have summer and winter and midday and midnight at different times all round the world, but one of the things the earth does have in common is that we have the waxing and the waning of the moon at the same time everywhere.’
The Professor, who was not an astronomer, had never thought of this before. Mentally he checked the idea. Yes, it seemed to fit.
‘What amazes me,’ continued Jim, ‘is that mankind has gone tolerably bananas in celebration of the moon landings. Why? You might say that the whole mission was a failure. Yet we never bother to celebrate the anniversaries of things which really have changed our lives. The invention of television. The centenary of the Theory of Evolution. The discovery of DNA. Why don't those things get a week's retrospective on TV?’
The professor, who was still musing over the expression "tolerably bananas", made no answer.
"And the moon landings weren't even really a scientific breakthrough," said Jim. "I sometimes think that the only result of the moon landings was to enable man to bring back enough moon rock for the Americans to give it out in bits and pieces to politicians they wanted to impress. Rather like the way people treasured bits of the True Cross in the old days. A bit of the True Moon. They put the Piece of the Cross in church in the old days. They put the True Moon in museums today. Modern churches. They used to say that if you added up all the pieces of the True Cross in the Middle Ages, you could build an ocean-going ship. I wouldn't be surprised if the same is true of the pieces of the moon. Though God knows what you could make out of bits of moon...’
The moon went behind a cloud. It came out again.
‘Sir,’ said Jim, suddenly diffident, ‘I brought up religion because there is a theory I wanted to test on you. Would you mind…?’
He took the old man's silence for assent.
‘In the old days, people took unnatural events as omens. Comets, volcanic eruptions, even storms and rainbows, were seen as signs that God was angry or pleased, or that some momentous event was on its way. Well, recently we have had some more of those signs in the sky. We have had the thinning of the ozone layer. We have had bad air over London and what the Old Testament would call a plague of asthma. Most startling of all, we have had the collision of the Shoemaker-Levy comet with Jupiter. In the old days people would be running around, saying that God is angry. Nobody does that any more. But it is just possible that someone up there is trying to tell us something. As a scientist, it is exceedingly unlikely, I admit. But I also know as a scientist that it is just possible. "
There was a pause. The Professor raised his eyes to the moon and said nothing.
‘But there is no scientific machinery for measuring such a theory. That's what worries me. We can evaluate any data-based theory. We can prove it, disprove it or put it on hold. What we can't even begin to do is evaluate any mystical or imaginative statement. We cannot prove or disprove the idea that God is angry. Why, I don't suppose the idea has even occurred to Shomaker or to Levy!’
The Professor, all this time, had been pursuing a quite different train of thought, based on the phrase "tolerably bananas". He had been wondering why so many expressions meaning "mad" were derived from the biological world, such as "bananas" and "nuts" and "bats" and "barking"... The only one he could think of not based on flora and fauna was "loony". From "lunatic". The moon. He looked up at the moon again. It had gone in.
‘I'm sorry,’ he said. ‘Far away. What were you saying?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ said Jim. They turned and went in. As Jim took a last look back at the sky, he fancied he saw the man in the moon put his tongue out at him.
The Independent Monday July 25 1994