Thursday, September 22, 2011

A bucket of minnows

The 4 August issue of Nature had this teaser on the cover: "LUNAR COLLISION: Did lost second Moon leave its mark on the dark side?"

The story inside presents a computer simulation that suggests the highlands on the Moon's far side may have been caused by the accretion of a smaller second moon that collided some tens of millions of years after both moons formed early in the history of the Solar System.

So back to the teaser. Why is the "lost second Moon" capitalized? Presumably the capital goes with the Moon as we presently know it.

And rather more embarrassingly, what's this business of "dark side"?

Granted, "dark side of the Moon" is a commonly used phrase for the face of the Moon that is permanently turned away from the Earth, the face we never saw until the dawn of the space age. But it's only "dark" at the time of the full Moon, when the familiar face is illuminated by the Sun.

At the time of the new Moon the so-called "dark side" is fully illuminated. Those mysterious lunar highlands bask in sunlight.

Thankfully, the article inside the journal foregoes the capitalization and speaks only of the Moon's "far side."

Tsk, tsk, Nature.

Am I making lunar mountains out of a linguistic Molehill? Maybe. But it's a good excuse to reflect on the difference between scientific language and poetry.

Scientific language strives to avoid ambiguity. Sometimes this can lead to what the layperson might take as jargon. The botanist, for example, has dozens of ways to say a plant is not smooth: aculeate, aculeoate, asperous, bristly, brillate, canescent, chaffy, ciliate, coriaceous, and so on. I could settle for bristly and chaffy, but presumably the botanist recognizes finer distinctions than meet my eye. As for the choice between "far" and "dark" -- the first is unambiguous and accurate, the second reinforces ancient anthropocentric prejudices. If I quoted here from the technical paper in Nature on the proposed origins of the lunar highlands, the typical non-specialist reader would be bewildered. Poetry it's not.

Rather different, say, than these lines from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses:
The moon has a face like a clock in the hall;
She shines on thieves on the garden wall,
On street and fields and harbor quays,
And birdies asleep in the forks of trees.
The moon has a face like a clock in the hall. The bright-sided, dark-sided Moon/clock telling time. Just there, watching me as I watch it. Yeah, that worked for me as a kid. Science it's not.

“What crazies we writers are, our heads full of language like buckets of minnows standing in the moonlight on a dock,”
 wrote the poet Hayden Carruth. You can make a poem of a bucket of minnows. You can't make science.