The Moon: A History for the Future by Oliver Morton
With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing approaching, we’re seeing a slew of books, films, TV shows, web articles, etc. highlighting what remains one of humanity’s most inspiring achievements. But it would be a mistake to lump Oliver Morton’s The Moon: A History for the Future (2019) in with the retrospectives, for as that subtitle hints, Morton looks forward more than he looks backward in a wide-ranging look at our nearest celestial object.
On a basic level, if you want simple (or not so simple) facts about the Moon itself — what it is made of, how it formed, how cold it gets, etc. — then Morton has you covered and then some, either weaving such facts right into the narrative or adding them as thoughtful notes at the end. (I’m a huge fan of books that have notes as fascinating as the text itself and that’s the case here. In other words, don’t skip them — you know who you are.) No matter the form, Morton does what all excellent science journalists do; he presents the facts not in a vacuum (no pun intended) but in a context or via a metaphor/analogy that makes them easier to understand for the layperson. For instance, when discussing something as basic as the surface area of the Moon, he first gives us the statistic (37.9 million square miles). But then, recognizing such a number will be meaningless to most of his readers, he follows that up with something more understandable, noting how that’s roughly a “quarter of the area of Earth’s continents.” But that’s still a bit abstract, so he makes it even more concrete by noting it is “smaller than Asia, a bit larger than Africa.” And now, just about anyone who has seen a world map, which is just about everyone (even better, most have now seen maps beyond the size-distorting Mercator projection), has a strong sense of just what 37.9 million square miles means. Morton even goes a step farther, pointing out that driving a tunnel bored between the two poles of the Moon would be like driving from Cairo to Nairobi (at which point his readers may just call up an African or world map on their phone and check it out on their favorite mapping app). Good science writers do this sort of thing — use analogies and metaphors, keep circling around facts so as to drive them home, put numbers into an everyday context — all the time. Better ones do it so as you don’t even notice them doing it (unless you’re writing a review). Morton is one of the better ones.
As one might expect from the title, Morton places these facts in an historical context, concisely and efficiently showing us how current knowledge of the Moon was gained or how current theories were developed, rather than just presenting them in their existent form. This too — showing how science moves in fits and starts, early theories winnowed, corrected, expanded (sometimes “dead” ones being resurrected) — is one of the hallmarks of good science writing. And so we learn how the collision theory of the Moon’s formation came to be the most accepted (but not wholly so) idea, or how those huge Saturn V’s that landed Apollo 11 on the Moon were the descendants of rockets used in ancient China or, more recently, of Nazi V2’s.
More surprisingly, Morton also sets his exploration of the Moon in an artistic context, discussing art, fiction, and film throughout The Moon. For instance, he points out that the Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck appears to be the first to show the Moon in a realistic manner, complete with features such as the maria. He discusses other artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, but also brings in films and a healthy dose of fiction, especially toward the end where he spends a good amount of space (admittedly, I’d argue a little too much) on Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon. Just as with the basic facts, Morton ranges widely in visual and literary allusion, referencing Verne, Méliès, Varley, and more, and I’ll happily take a little bit of tedious over-exegesis as a trade-off.
Finally, in terms of placing the Moon in a variety of contexts beyond the hard scientific facts, Morton brings in his own subjective viewpoints on various matters or his own emotional responses to particular events. And not just his own. He notes the existence of an entire generation of Apollo 11 “orphans” — “people in and around their fifties for whom space remains an inspiration and a disappointment … [who] felt, as they came of age, like something between a bereavement and a betrayal … The orphans of Apollo mixed [Arthur C.] Clarke’s particular enthusiasm and [Heinlein’s] Harriman’s compulsion to believe with the frustration of being not tantalized by a fancy of the future but robbed of a fact of the present.”
It is here that Morton leaps into the future, exploring the possibilities (some of which he finds more plausible than others) of moon bases, mining the Moon (he doesn’t buy the feasibility of helium-3 mining), employing moon-based telescopes, using the Moon as a stepping stone, moon tourism, and the like. Morton doesn’t limit details to only already-planned missions. For moon bases, for instance, he looks past current plans (and capabilities) and explains how setting up bases inside the Moon’s lava tubes (larger than Earth’s) is probably a better idea than constructing shelters. As for more near-term musings, his information is quite up-to-date, as he specifies a number of upcoming missions from various countries, explaining that “a flotilla of robotic payloads is slated to beach up on the lunar surface in the next five or so years.” Many, he points out, are from the usual suspects (the US, Europe, China), but others come from India, Israel, and Canada. Nor does he ignore the private companies. Elon Musk, he readily acknowledges, “has led the most successful spacecraft development since Apollo.” But he also notes that Musk is also seen as a “flake” by some. Worse, Morton says, and here we see another example of his subjectivity, “he is also a prick.” As for Jeff Bezos, Morton praises him as being, like Musk, “well-motivated” but adds that, “One should not discount the possibility of prickishness.”
In terms of prose style, Morton is always lucid, but that doesn’t translate to always plain or simple. He isn’t shy of waxing more lyrical at times, as when for instance he delves into the issues with moon dust: “The Apollo astronauts ingest it without choosing to. In their dust-dirtied LM tiny particles move through the alveoli of their lungs and across the microvilli of the guts into their blood, tissues, and cells. They bring the Moon home incorporated. They bring themselves home changed.” That sort of poetic writing is rare, but when Morton reaches for it he almost always attains it.
One thinks he’s going there again at the very end of The Moon when he describes a walk on the beach, “the Sun’s warmth lifting the sea to the sky, the cooler air at height condensing its vapours back into droplet, ice and energy, stirring the atmosphere into huge clouds of rich but subtle pastel colours out over the ocean …” And, truth be told, I would have happily followed him down that more lyrical path. But when, instead, he pulls back into the more mundane language of him, “grinning and turning,” listening via his headphones to “Moanin’” by Art Blakely, barefoot, dancing “in the surf to the rising moon,” I couldn’t help but grin along with him at the image, making it, probably, the better choice. Which is pretty much how the entire book goes, with Morton nearly always making the better choice. Making the reader’s choice of whether or not to pick this one up pretty easy.