The Triple Triumph of the Moon


Isaac Asimov

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia in the Southern Autumn of 1996

Introduction ...

The following extract consists of the second chapter of a book written by the prolific science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, in the late (northern) autumn of 1972. He states that he wrote this chapter while on board the Holland-American liner S.S. Statendam, seven miles off the coast of Cape Kennedy, the day after he had stood on deck and ...

While the title of the book is "The Tragedy of the Moon", the title of this second chapter of the book is called "The Triumph of the Moon". In the course of this chapter Asimov identifies, outlines and substantiates three quite startling potentialities associated with the presence of the moon ...

The following account presents Isaac Asimov's reasonings on these matters and leaves it up to the reader to allocate further importance to what - at first sight - looks like sheer lunacy, but which after certain reflection and phased contemplation resonates in a fashion with the greater affairs and tides of mankind as he has struggled on the path of evolution down through the ages of time ...

The Triple Triumph of the Moon:

From the Isaac Asimov paperback of 1972 entitled The Tragedy of the Moon
The First Triumph of the Moon ...

The moon made it possible
for man to evolve and so exist.

quoting Isaac Asimov ...

To begin with, man might conceivably not exist at all if Earth had had no Moon. The dry land might have remained untennanted.

Life began in the sea some three billion years ago or more, and for at least 80 per cent of its entire history on this planet, it remained in the sea. Life is adapted for the surface layers of the ocean primarily, and only by the power of versatile adjustment over many generations has it succeeded in colonising the surface's borderlands: downward into the abyss, outward into the fresh-water rivers and lakes, and outward/upward into the land and air.

Of the borderlands, dry land must in its way have been most exotic; as impossible to sea life as the surface of the Moon is to us. If we imagine a primitive sea creature intelligent enough to have speculated about land life, we can be sure he would be appalled by the prospect. On land, an organism would be subjected to the full and eternal pull of gravity, to the existence of wild oscillations of temperature both daily and yearly, to the crushing need to get and retain water in an essentially water- free environment , to the need to get oxygen out of dry, and desiccating, air rather than out of mild water solution.

Such a sea creature might imagine itself emerging from the sea in a water-filled land suit with mechanical grapples to support him against gravity, insulation against temperature change, and so on.

The sea life of half a billion years ago had, however, no technology to help it defeat the land. It could only adapt itself over hundreds or thousands of generations to the point where it could live on land unprotected.

But what force drove it to do so, in the absence of a deliberate decision to do so?

The tides ...

Life spread outward into the rims of the ocean, where the sea water rose up against the continental slopes and then fell back twice each day. And thousands of ,species of seaweed and worms and crustaceans and molluscs and fish rose and fell with those tides. Son e were exposed on shore as the sea retreated, and of those a very few survived, because they happened, for some reason, to be the best able to withstand the nightmare of land existence until the healing, life-giving water returned.

Species adapted to the temporary endurance of dry land developed, and the continuing pressure of competitor saw to it that there was survival value to be gained in developing the capacity to withstand dry-land conditions for longer and ever-longer periods.

Eventually species developed that could remain on land indefinitely. About 425 million years ago, plant life began cautiously to green the edges of the continent. Snails, spiders, insects developed to take advantage of a new food supply. Some 400 million years ago, certain fish were crawling on new-made limbs over the soggy mud flats.

(Actually we are descended from fresh-water creatures who probably came to endure land as a result of the periodic drying of ponds, but they could have completed the colonisation only because the tides had already populated the continents and produced an ecology to become part of.)

And of course the tides are the product of the Moon. The Sun, to be sure, also produces tides, nearly half the size of those produced by the Moon today, but that smaller to-and-fro wash of salt water would represent a smaller drive towards land and might have led to the colonisation of the continents much later in time, if at all.

Indeed, hundreds of millions of years ago, when land life was evolving, the Moon was surely closer to Earth, and the tides were considerably more ample. It is even possible that the Moon was captured late in the existence of life and that it was the long period of giant tides that followed which produced the necessary push for the colonisation of the land.

[I wonder if, when we explore the galaxy, we will find life universally present on all Earthlike planets, but always sea life. I wonder if we'll find that land lile requires that most unlikely event, the capture of a large moon, and that we are therefore alone in the galaxy after all.]

The Triple Triumph of the Moon:

From the Isaac Asimov paperback of 1972 entitled The Tragedy of the Moon
The Second Triumph of the Moon ...

The moon made it possible
for man to develop mathematics and science.

Isaac Asimov continues ...

The second crucial effect of the Moon came sometime in the Paleolithic period, when men were food-gathering primates, perhaps not noticeably more successful than others of the order. Man's primitive ancestors were already the brainiest land creatures that ever lived, but it is possible to argue that brains in themselves are not necessarily the best way of ensuring survival. The chimpanzee is not as successful in the evolutionary scheme of things as the rat, nor the elephant as the fly.

For man to become successful, for man to establish himself as the ruler of the planet, it was necessary for him to use his brain as something more than a device to make the daily routine of getting food and evading enemies a little more efficient. Man had to learn to control his environment; that is to observe and generalise, and give birth to a technology. And to sharpen his mind to that point, he had to number and measure. Only numbering and measuring could he begin to grasp the notion of a universe that could be understood and manipulated.

Something was needed for a push towards numbering, as once something had been needed for a push towards dry land.

Man would have to notice something orderly that he could grasp - something orderly enough to enable him to predict the future and give him an appreciation of the power of the intellect.

One simple way of seeing order is to note some steady, cyclic rhythm in nature. The simplest, most overbearing such cycle is clearly the alternation of day and night. The time must have come when some man (or manlike ancestor) began to have the conscious knowledge that the Sun would certainly rise in the east after having set in the west. This would mean the consciousness of time, rather than the mere passive endurance of it. It would surely mean the beginning of the measurement of time, perhaps the measurement of anything, when an event could be placed as so many sunrises ago or as so many to come.

Yet the day-night cycle lacks subtlety and is too overwhelming and black-and-white (literally) to call out the best in man. Of course if men observed very closely, they might notice that the day lengthened and shortened and that night shortened and lengthened in what we would today call a yearly cycle. They might associate this with the changing height of the midday Sun and with a cycle of seasons.

Unfortunately such changes would be hard to grasp, hard to follow, hard to measure. The length of the day and the position of the Sun would be hard to observe in primitive days; the seasons depend on many factors that tend to obscure their purely cyclic nature ovcr the short run; and in the tropics, when man developed, all these changes are minimal.

But there is the Moon - the most dramatic sight in the heavens. The Sull is glorious but cannot be looked at. The stars are unchanging points of light. The Moon, however, is an object of soft and glowing light that changes its shape steadily.

The fascination of that changing shape, accompanied by a changing position in the sky relative to the Sun, had to attract attention. The slow death of the Moon's crescent as it merged with the rising Sun, and the birth of a new Moon from the solar fire of sunset may have given mankind the first push towards the notion of death and rebirth, which is central to so many religions.

The birth of each new Moon (still so called), as a symbol of hope, may have exercised the emotions of early man sufficiently to give him the overwhelming urge to calculate in advance when that new Moon would come so that he might greet it with glee and festival.

The new Moons come sufficiently far apart, however, for the matter to prove an exercise in counting; and the count is large enough to make it advisable to use notches in a piece of wood or bone. Furthermore, the number of days is not unvarying. Sometimes the interval is twenty-nine days between new Moons, sometimes thirty. With continued counting, however, a pattern will appear.

Once the pattern has been established, it will eventually be seen that every twelve new Moons will include a cycle of seasons (it is easier to count and understand twelve new Moons than 365 days). And yet the fit is not right, either. With twelve new Moons the seasons drift forward. Sometimes a thirteenth new Moon must be added.

Then, too, every once in a while the Moon goes into eclipse. (Since eclipses of the Moon can be seen all over the world at once, while eclipses of the Sun - roughly equal in nummber - can be seen only in some particular narrow region only, then from a given spot on Earth one sees many more eclipses of the Moon than of the Sun.)

The eclipse of the Moon: its comparatively rapid death at the moment of complete maturity (the eclipse always comes when the Moon is full), and the equally rapid rebirth, must have had enormous impact on primitive people. It would have been important for them to know when such a significant event would occur, and calculations must have had to reach a new level of subtlety.

It is not surprising, then, that early efforts to understand the universe concentrated on the Moon. Stonehenge may have been a primitive observatory serving as a large device to predict lunar eclispes accurately. Alexander Marshak has analysed the markings on ancient bones and has suggested that they were primitive calendars marking off the new Moons.

There is thus good reason to believe that man was first jolted into calculation and generalisation by the need to keep track of the Moon; that from the Moon came calendars from them, mathematics and astronomy (and religion too); and from them, everything else.

As the Moon made man possible as a physical being through its tides, it made him an intellectual being through its phases.

The Triple Triumph of the Moon:

From the Isaac Asimov paperback of 1972 entitled The Tragedy of the Moon
The Third Triumph of the Moon ...

The moon made it possible
for man to transcend Earth and conquer space.

Isaac Asimov continues ...

And what else? I promised three crises; for the third, let us move still farther forward in time, to a point at which human civilisation was in full career.

By the third millennium B.C. the first great civilisation, that of the Sumerians in the downstream reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, was at its peak. In that dry climate the night sky was uniformly and brilliantly visible, and there was a priestly caste that had the leisure to study the heavens and the religious motivation to do so.

It was they, in all likelihood, who first noticed that although most of the stars maintained their configurations for night after night indefinitely, five of the brighter ones shifted position steadily, night after night, relative to the rest. This represented the discovery of the planets, which they distinguished by the names of gods, a habit we have kept to this day. They noted that the Sun and the Moon also shifted position steadily with referencesto the stars, so they were considered planets too.

The Sumerians were the first (possibly) to begin to follow the motions of all the planets rather than of the Moon only, and to attempt the far more complicated task of generalising and systematising planetary motion rather than lunar motion. This was continued by the later civilisations inheriting their traditions, until the Chaldeans, who ruled the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in the sixth century B.C.,.had a well developed system of planetary astronomy.

The Greeks borrowed astronorny from the Chaldeans and elaborated it further into a system, which Claudius Ptolemy put into its final form in the second century A.D.

This Ptolemaic system placed the Earth at the centre of the universe. Earth was supposed to be surrounded by a series of concentric spheres. The innermost held the Moon the next Mercury, then Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, in that order. The outermost held the fixed stars. Many subtle modifications were added to this primary scheme.

Now let's consider the objects in the heavens, one by one, and see how they would impress the early observer. Suppose first that only the stars existed in the sky.

In that case there would be no reason whatever for any astronomer, whether Sumerian or Greek, to assume that they were anything other than what they appeared to be: luminous dots of light against a black background. The fact that they never changed their position relative to one another, even after long periods of observation, would make it reasonable to suppose that the sky was a black solid sphere enclosing the Earth and that the stars were imbedded in that solid sky like tiny, luminous thumbtacks.

It would be further reasonable to suppose the sky and its embedded stars to be a mere covering, and that the Earth, and the Earth alone, made up the essential universe. It had to be the world, the only existent thing man could inhabit.

When Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were discovered and studied, they added nothing startlingly new to this picture. They moved independently, so they could not be affixed to the sky. Each had to be embedded in a separate sphere, one inside the other, and each of these spheres had to be transparent, since we could see the stars through them all.

These planets, however, were merely so many more stars to the primitive observer. They were brighter than the others and moved differently, but they had to be only additional luminous points. Their existence did not interfere with the view of the Earth as the only world.

What about the Sun, though ?

That, it would have to be admitted, is unique in the heavens. It is not a dot of light, but a disc of light, many millions of times as bright as any star. When it was in the sky, it painted the sky blue and washed out any mere dot of light.

And yet, although the Sun was much more, it was not much different. All the stars and planets, and the Sun too, were composed of light, while the Earth was dark. The heavenly bodies were changeless, while all on earth corrupted, decayed, and changed. The heavenly bodies moved around and around, while objects on Earth either rose or fell. Heaven and Earth seemed fundamentally different.

About 340 B.C., Aristotle set the distinction in a fashion that held good for two thousand years. The Earth, he said, was made of four basic constituent elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The heavens, however, and everything in them, were made of a fifth element, peculiar to itself and completely different from the four of Earth. This fifth element is 'ether', from a Greek word meaning 'glowing'.

This glowingness, or luminosity, which seemed so fundamental to heavenly bodies as opposed to earthly ones, extended to temporary denizens of the heavens too. Meteors existed only momentarily, but they were flashes of light. Comets might come and go and have strange shapes, but those shapes were luminous.

Everything, it seemed, conspired to show the heavens to be separate and the Earth to be the only world.

. . . Except the Moon.

The Moon does not fit. Like the Sun, it is more than a mere dot of light. It can even be a full disc of light, though it is then hundreds of thousands of times less bright than the Sun. Unlike the Sun or anything else in the heavens, how- ever, the Moon changes its shape regularly.

Sooner or later the question must have arisen, Why does the Moon change its shape?

Undoubtedly, man's first thought would be that what seemed to happen did happen: that, every month, a new Moon was born from the fires of the Sun.

Some unnamed Sumerian might have had his doubts, however. The complete and careful study of the Moon's position in the sky as compared to the Sun must have made it quite clear that the luminous portion of the Moon was always 1he portion that faced the Sun.

It would appear that as the Moon changed position relative to the Sun, progressively different portions were illuminated, and this progressive change resulted in changes of phase as seen from the Earth.

If the phases of the Moon were interpreted in this fashion, it appeared that the Moon was a sphere that shone only by light reflected from the Sun. Only half the sphere was illuminated by the Sun at any one time, and this illuminated hemisphere shifted position to produce the succession of phases.

If any proof were needed to substantiate this, it could be found in the manner in which, at the time of the crescent Moon, the rest of the Moon's body could sometimes be made out in a dimly red luminosity. It was there but was simply not being illuminated by the Sun.

By Greek times, the fact that the Moon shone only by reflected light from the Sun was accepted without question.

This meant that the Moon was not an intrinsically luminous body, as all the other heavenly bodies seemed to be. It was a dark body, like Earth. It shone by reflected light, like Earth. (In fact, the dim, red glow of the dark Moon at the time of the crescent resulted from the bathing of that part of the Moon in earthlight.)

Then, too, the Moon's body, unlike that of the Sun, showed clear and permanent markings, dark splotches that marred its luminosity. This meant that, unlike the other heavenly bodies, the Moon was visibly imperfect, like the Earth.

It was possible to suppose, then, that the Moon, at least, was a world as the Earth was one; that the Moon, at least, might bear inhabitants as Earth did. Even in ancient times, then, the Moon (and the Moon alone) gave man the notion of a multiplicity of worlds. Without the Moon, the notion might never have arisen before the invention of the telescope.

Aristotle, to be sure, did not put the Moon in a class with the Earth, but considered it to be composed of ether. One might argue that the Moon was closer to Earth than any other heavenly body was, and therefore absorbed some of the imperfections of earthly elements, developing stains and losing the capacity for self-illumination.

But then Greek astronomy advanced further. About 250 B.C., Eratosthenes of Cyrene used trigonometric methods for calculating the size of the Earth. He came to the conclusion that the Earth had a circumference of twenty-five thousand miles and therefore a diameter of eight thousand miles. This was essentially correct.

In 150 B.C., Hipparchus of Nicaea used trigonometric methods to determine the distance to the Moon. He decided the distance of the Moon from the Earth was about thirty times the diameter of the earth. This, too, was essentially correct.

If the work of Hipparchus and Eratosthenes was combined, then the Moon was 240,000 miles from Earth, and to appear to be its apparent size, it had to be a little over two thousand miles wide. It was a world! Whatever Aristotle said, it was a world in size at least.

It is not surprising, then, that by the time Claudius Ptolemy was publishing his grand synthesis of Greek astronomy, Lucian of Samosata was writing a popular romance involving a trip to an inhabited Moon. Indeed, once the Moon was recognised as a world, it was an easy further step to assume that other heavenly bodies were worlds as well.

Yet it is only the Moon - only the Moon - that is close enough to Earth for its distance to be estimated by trigonometric methods based on unaided-eye observations. Without the Moon, it would have been impossible to gain any knowledge whatever of the distance and size of any heavenly body prior to the invention of the telescope. And without the nudge of knowing the Moon's distance and size, might there have been quite the urge to explore the heavens even after the telescope was invented and used for military purposes ?

Then, in 1609, Galileo did press the telescope into astronomic service for the first time.

Galileo studied the heavens and found that, through his telescope, the planets, which seemed to be dots of light when viewed by the unaided eye, appeared to be distinctly formed spheres of light. What's more, Venus, at least, was so located with respect to the Earth as to show phases like those of the Moon; phases, moreover, plainly related to its position with respect to the Sun.

The conclusion seemed inevitable. All the starlike planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; were worlds like the Moon. They appeared as mere dots of light because they were so much farther from us than the Moon was.

This in itself was not fatal to the Aristotelian view, for it could be argued that the planets (and the Moon), however large they were, and however non-luminous, were never- theless composed of ether.

What really destroyed the ethereal concept once and for all however, was Galileo's observation of the Moon. (1ndeed, he looked at the Moon first of all.) On the Moon, Galileo saw mountains, and dark, smooth areas he interpreted as seas. The Moon was clearly, visibly, a world like Earth: imperfect, rough, mountainous.

It is no wonder, then, that with this second blow dealt by the Moon, the concept of the plurality of worlds took another giant step forward. The seventeenth century saw the beginning of a set of novels dealing with manned voyages to the Moon that grew steadily more sophisticated and have not ceased right down to the present day.

Of course you say that Galileo would have demonstrated the plurality of worlds, by telescope, even if the Moon had not existed, and that the resistance of the Aristotelians would have broken as telescopes improved and as other tools were invented.

Suppose that were the case: Science-fiction writers might then have dreamed of flights to Mars or Venus instead of to a non-existent Moon . . . But dreams are only dreams, after all. Would man have attempted to make space flight a reality if the Moon had not existed ?

The Moon is less than a quarter of a million miles from us. Venus, on the other hand, is 25 million miles away even when it is at its closest (at intervals of a year and a half). It is then a hundred times as far from us as the Moon is. Mars at its times of closest approach is farther still. Every thirty years or so, when it is particularly close, it is 35 million miles away.

It takes three days to reach the Moon. It would take at least half a year to reach Venus or Mars. It has taken heroic measures for men to reach the Moon. Would it have been reasonable to expect them to have made the many-times-multiplied heroic measures necessary to reach Venus or Mars from scratch?

No, it is the Moon - the Moon only - that made space flight possible. It did so first by letting us see that there are other worlds than our own and then by offering us an easy stepping-stone by means of which we can sharpen our techniques and from which, as a base, we can eventually make the much greater assault on the more distant worlds.

End of Chapter - Isaac Asimov

Editorial Commentary

Needless to say, the above account written by Isaac Asimov resonates strongly in some mystical fashion with the concepts put forward in the article entitled The Nature of Nature which depicts the "cosmic bodies" of the Inner World as part of the same nature as the cosmic bodies of the first approximation of the Outer World - a sort of Celestial Metaphysics of the Third Millennia. In this article, the nature of the mind within the ecosystem of the inner life of man is likened to the the nature of the moon and the part it plays within the ecosystem of the terrestrial and cosmic environments of the outer world existence.

That the ecosystemic nature of the outer and inner worlds are in some manner related through the mechanisms and interfacing of the terrestrial and cosmic environments (both Inner and Outer) - has been voiced by many peoples of our planet - in all ages and from all cultures. One such example is to be found in the recorded writings of the Rig Veda, where we read:

In our scientific approach to the definition of the outer world, modern informational and classificational systems find it difficult to successfully place the structure and the content of what is known as Mythology. The nature of the moon and the sun and the earth are the subject of the mythologies, beliefs and ways-of-life of every group of living beings upon this terrestrial planet ... for they represent the cosmic chariot upon which life appears to have taken root. If further research is sought, this concept of the chariot is further outlined and expanded in an article on the Katha Upanishad.

In each of the ancient mythologies (if this in fact is the correct way of describing them), the place of the moon and the sun and the earth were of a high order in the forefront of reverence. In all lands beneath the sun and moon, in all ages of the terrestrial evolution of mankind, these fundamental cosmic bodies - directly responsible for the manifestation of life - and the foundational faculties of life - have been reverred, praised and expounded upon, and their true natures sought.

In more recent times, the early 1970's, Dr James Lovelock and Dr Lynn Margulis have put forward the Gaia Hypothesis which presents the earth as a living entity, a complex being consistent of a myriad of complexly interrelated ecosystems, a cosmic being in its own right. In a further article I will outline the natural progressive extentions to the Gaia Hypothesis, which examine the nature of the earth in its two-fold light of its participation in the environment of what is seen as the binary earth/moon terrestrial system, and secondly as it is seen to be part of the larger cosmic environment which must inlude the sun - and the system of this sol.

Therefore, in consideration of the outlandish claims of Isaac Asimov concerning the potentiality afforded by the moon in the affairs of mankind, I would encourage the reader to attempt to clear the mind of preconceived notions and to travel with Asimov on what could possibly become one of the more enlightened frames of reasoning in the later part of the second millenia.

We of the late twentieth century have been educated to the framework afforded by the disciplines of knowledge, and to the hypothesis that a PhD of one of the Sciences (or possibly Religions) would be in a better position to outline the mysteries of nature to the world by means of complex communications and derivation from some first principles.

However, I have my doubts concerning this hypothesis, and would state that it appears to me as though the mysteries of nature instead are hidden in the midst of a great simplicity - each and every day of our lives within this ecosystem which we know as terrestrial existence - and ecosystem which we know to be eternally interfaced into the deeper environment of cosmic nature. Moreover, it would follow that the mysteries of nature could be outlined by those who are uneducated to the traditional western doctrines of matter and energy, mathematics and money.

This approach therefore provides weight to not only the testimony of what is known as Mythology (or the voice of the ancient record) but also to the contemporary voice of the indigenous and native peoples of our terrestrial planet, in particular to the voice of the elders, who have seen the effect of westernisation upon their own lives, the lives of their children, and the lives of their children's children.

For it has been within the binary eco-systemics of the terrestrial earth/moon system, within again its more cosmic solar environment, that the grand phenomena of the kingdoms of life have evolved for some billions of years. I do not hope to be able to present the answers for the casual internet browsers, and for the students of life, but I do hope that the foregoing and the following will be food for thought, and that further research will take these ideas, and better enable the understanding of nature such that both the survival and the education of man is enhanced for the third millennia.


PRF Brown
BCSLS {Freshwater}
Mountain Man Graphics, Australia


The Triple Triumph of the Moon


Isaac Asimov

  • The moon made it possible for man:

    to evolve and so exist.
    to develop mathematics and science.
    to transcend Earth and conquer space

  • Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia in the Southern Autumn of 1996