One of the more surprising trending topics at the moment is our dear old moon. Chances are you've been seeing a lot of her recently, rising majestic as a blood red orange behind Glastonbury Tor, or being measured and photographed like a delinquent, standing accused of causing the earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan.
More than the ordinary waxing and waning symbol of night, the current larger-than-your-average moon has attained something approaching infamy. It appears bigger partly because it has an elliptical, not a circular, orbit, so it is closer to the Earth at the moment. Scientists call such a moon a perigee syzgy, but because that sounds like dog food made by Lucozade, almost everyone else has called it a super moon.
The fact the moon is physically closer has made many suspect its effect on us must be similarly magnified. Indeed super moon of this last weekend has loomed large over everything. Two days before the earthquake in Japan, the Sun carried a story warning of a "disaster" moon. On Saturday, the Mail provided a suitably super-sized spread on the moon, chucking in everything from Shakespeare to broken-lined orbital paths. But as Michael Jackson might have observed, blaming disasters on the moonlight is not a recent phenomenon. In 1938 a super moon was blamed for a New England Hurricane and in 1974 one was blamed for Cyclone Tracy in Darwin. The super moon of 2005 managed to straddle disasters; being held responsible for Hurricane Katrina in August and the Boxing Day tsunami of December the previous year.
Of course we know that the moon does have a measurable effect on certain phenomena, such as tidal function – and the super moon has been suggested as a cause of the stranding of five ships in the Solent, after some lower than usual spring tides revealed normally safely submerged sandbanks. But a tsunami? It does tend to be established thinking that earthquakes are something to do with tectonic plates shifting ...
The moon has long sat in the shadow realm of our world. It's an aspect of night, which makes it ghoulish and suspicious, and never stays the same two nights in a row, which makes it unreliable. It messes up the timings of our Easter holiday, turns men into howling beasts and has its wicked way with the tides. Bad moon!
For all the capabilities of science to explain away everything, we still cling to the moon-shaped idea that not everything can be reasoned with. We like superstitions because of their connection with the inexplicable. At base there's something childlike and humble about our need to honour the magical.
Like the power of planets and stars, exerting a popular pull over the imagination with horoscopes, retrogrades, conjuncts and trines, being able to marvel at the sight of moonrise spreading a green glow over the sky only seems to reduce the amount of energy spent calculating when, to a quantifiably accurate billion of years, it's all going to come crashing down around us.
But nor is it just the moon getting press for causing global disturbance. The solar flares predicted to reach their zenith over the following two years are being rumoured to have the potential to bring the curtain of Aurora as far south as the equator and disrupt satellites, GPS and our electricity grids.
Perhaps it is superstition that keeps us looking up to astral bodies for their ability to influence and direct events. But perhaps it's easier to point the finger to the sky for calamities down below, than to look at battlefields, such as the one opening up in Libya, and realise what experts we are at causing chaos and devastation all by ourselves.
*Published in THE GUARDIAN (UK) on March 21, 2011.