Category Archives: astronomy and society

The Phases of the Moon in Song

Phases of the moon

Carol-Irene Southworth, a student in Professor B’s Solar System class at the University of California at San Diego, wrote and recorded the following song describing the phases of the Moon.  If you want to play along, the chords are just C and F, in this case played on the ukulele (according to Woody Guthrie, “if you play more than two chords, you’re showing off”).

Listen here [4:18m]:

Download here [5.2 Mb]:

Lyrics are below!

What’s the facts:

Over the course of roughly a month, the part of the Moon that is illuminated goes through a regular cycle of phases.  Starting from dark new moon phase, the Moon gradually brightens, or waxes, through waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous and finally to a bright full moon phase 14 days later.  The Moon then dims, or wanes, over the next 14 days, going through waning gibbous, third quarter, waning crescent and finally dark new moon again.  This cycle is due to the relative orientation of the Sun, Moon and Earth, and the dark portions of the Moon are always caused by its own shadow shielding the Sun’s rays.  New moon phase happens when the Sun, the Moon and the Earth are in a line, so that the far side of the Moon we can’t see is lit up.  Full moon phase happens when the Sun, the Earth and the Moon are in a line, so we see the sunlit side of the Moon.  The other phases occur in between these two alignments, which are also called syzygy.

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Making Friends with the Night Sky: Women and the Moon

Our earliest calendar - linking the lunar cycle with the menstruation cycle

Maui astronomer Harriet Witt describes the connection between women and the Moon.

Listen here [2:41m]:

Download here [2.5 Mb]:

What’s the facts:

The earliest astronomers may have been women, who discovered that the cycle of the Moon was synchronized with their menstrual cycle.  Having an external cue for this internal cycle would have allowed women to time the birth of their children and perhaps help regulate the population of their tribe or clan in an environment with limited resources.

Our earliest evidence of the connection between the Moon cycle and menstruation cycle – indeed, our earliest evidence of the practice of astronomy – is found on a reindeer bone over 20,000 years old, called the Ishango Bone.  This bone is also believed to be early evidence of the beginning of mathematical thought.  The Ishango bone is one of our first calendars (other ancient calendars also traced the cycles of the Moon).

Original air date 4 August 2009.

House of the Sun: Haleakala

Science City on the summit of Haleakala.

Science City on the summit of Haleakala.

Charae Tongg talks about the conflict stirring at the top of Haleakala over the construction of a new telescope, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope. What happens when culture collides with science?

Listen here [2:45m]:

What’s the facts:

The final plans for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, or ATST,  are in.  The ATST will be used to study the Sun and to help predict and prepare for solar-activity related disasters. Once the builders of the ATST (headed up by the National Solar Observatory and 22 collaborating institutions) have an Environmental Impact Statement completed, astronomers will prepare to build their brand new telescope on the beautiful summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui.  While progress toward building ATST is on its way,  it isn’t, by any means, a smooth process.

When locals on Maui got wind of the plans, many were deeply offended. For centuries the mountaintop has been seen as sacred to the Ali’i or Hawaiian chief royalty, and it is believed today to be an ancient burial ground for the Ali’i and their families. Astronomers argue that studying the Sun is the most appropriate scientific activity to conduct on the top of Haleakala, whose name means “House of the Sun,” and that such research would honor ancient Hawaiian beliefs.

Those who oppose the project have formed a group called Kila Kila o Haleakala or “majestic is the house of the sun.” Some locals are willing to compromise, suggesting that the telescope be constructed differently (possibly with fewer stories, or of a different color), but engineers argue that current building plans are necessary for a telescope of such ability.

What are your thoughts?

Original air date 9 June 2009.

Making Friends with the Night Sky: Maui’s Fishhook

The constellation Scorpio

The constellation Scorpius, known in Hawaiian culture as Maui's Fishhook

Maui astronomer Harriet Witt describes how different cultures have different names for the constellations in the night sky, and how the legend of Maui’s Fishhook (also called Scorpius, or the Scorpion) was probably important to the Polynesians who first settled Hawaii.

Listen here [4:24m]:

What’s the facts:

Ancient Hawaiian legends state that Maui, one of the many demigods of Hawaii, once threw a magical fishhook, (Manai-a-Kalani or “fishhook from the Heavens”) into the Pacific Ocean to pull out the other Hawaiian islands. Maui had received this sacred fishhook from his father Akalana and was sent off in a canoe with his brothers to catch the giant ulua fish named Pimoe.  This was a hard task, because if one were to look at Pimoe, the fish would die instantly and turn into solid land. Maui dropped his fishhook into the ocean and Pimoe grabbed a hold of it. Struggling to keep a hold of the line, Maui’s brothers turned around and the line snapped. Pimoe died and turned into hard land.  Maui pulled the great hook out from the land and threw it up into the sky, where it became the constellation known as Maui’s fishhook. It still hangs there today, known to many as Scorpius.

Hawaiians were natural astronomers, studying their skies very carefully. They used their knowledge of the sky to navigate to the islands, to know when to fish, and to manifest their spirituality. They even had a name for each night of the moon’s phases. That’s 29 names! To learn more about Ancient Hawaiian astronomy from Harriet Witt herself, click here.

Original air date 14 July 2009.