Computer Generated film, double wide screen projection, sound, 7 minutes.
This film was made with Kin in London. It explores the reciprocal attraction of two planetary spheres, the forming of the Earth and Moon according to an older and no longer accurate theory, formulated by GH Darwin.
Introducing his short story The Soft Moon, Italo Calvino relays a hypothesis by the physicist Gerstenkorn that describes the formation of the Earth-Moon system. This idea, later developed by Alfven, proposes that the Moon was once a planet that was captured by the Earth’s gravity causing it to derail from its own orbit.
“At a certain moment the reciprocal attraction began to alter the surface of the two celestial bodies, raising very high waves from which fragments were detached and sent spinning in space, between Earth and Moon, especially fragments of lunar matter which finally fell upon Earth. Later, through the influence of our tides, the Moon was impelled to move away again, until it reached its present orbit. But a part of the lunar mass, perhaps half of it, had remained on Earth, forming the continents.”
The formation of the Earth-Moon System was unlikely to have been through the capture of another planet. The formation was most probably Giant Impact, a huge collision of the earth with another planet. This impact would have caused large amounts of debris to fly into the nearby atmosphere, saturating space with tiny particles of dust and matter, as well as larger planetary objects. This material eventually accreted, forming our moon.
Millions of years ago, the Moon’s orbit around the earth was much tighter and the Moon itself would have appeared in the sky significantly larger than it does today. One of the most enduring images that Calvino conjures in his story is that of accretion, the exchange of matter between the two spheres. The Moon draws so close to the earth that tendrils of lunar substance are exchanged with terrestrial matter. What is fascinating about this exchange what Calvino emphasises somewhat profoundly, is that we are intrinsically part of something both quite intimate and quite remote, that our matter originated in the formation of the Solar System.
Our Moon is continuing to widen its orbit, slowly moving away from the Earth pushed by tidal forces. Interestingly this emphasises a philosophical ‘pull’; the proximity of our Moon coupled with the remoteness of our influence on it and the matter of the universe.
In his novel Solaris, Stanislaw Lem reflects both the unease and fascination we have of our place in the universe. The topography of the planet Solaris is not defined and continually shifts in form due to it orbiting two conjoined suns. This movement of matter, the continual flux of the surface of the planet is similar in many ways to the accreting moon that Calvino describes in his writing. Whereas, Calvino moulds and structures the matter of the universe to human form and thought, Lem creates a cold and almost incomprehensible universe, outside of the constraints of human intellect or consciousness. Both writers utilise the metaphor of movement of matter as an exploration of our perception of humankind within the expanse of the universe. Calvino and Lem’s representation of these ideas, regarding our place in the cosmos, are exquisite and far-reaching but in differing ways. In literary form they are significant – the interpretation of complex ideas acts as a bridge between our understanding of the world through the arts and scientific discovery.
Advances in astrophysical imaging allow us to ‘see’ the formation of distant galaxies. In The Infinite Cosmos, Joseph Silk, Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford, describes how we are formed atomically from the very same matter as distant and newly forming stars and black holes. As our knowledge of the universe extends, vast distances unfold, and our understanding of our place within it is rewritten.
The research undertaken during the Apollo missions established the Earth and Moon once and for all as a system, totally inter-dependant; the existence of life on earth due to the subtle but intrinsic balance between the two celestial objects. However, our understanding of the Solar System and the universe beyond is still in its infancy. Scientific discoveries illuminate this growing understanding, but also fuel our curiosity about its origins. These discoveries refer us to our cultures, languages and philosophies, significantly shaping the manner in which we comprehend both the Earth and the matter from which it is formed and, in turn, ourselves.
“The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently we have waded a little out to sea enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water is inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our very being knows that this is where we came. We long to return”.
The film was made with Kin, London and supported by University of Plymouth.
This short essay is published in the catalogue for the exhibition Leaving Earth. The catalogue also contains essays by Arthur I. Miller, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University College London. Dr. Ian Crawford, Reader in Planetary Science and Astrobiology, Birkbeck College, University of London. Dr Katherine Joy, Postdoctoral Fellow, LPI-JSC Center for Lunar Science and Exploration, Houston, Texas, USA and an introduction by Liz Wells, Professor in Photographic Culture, Faculty of Arts, University of Plymouth, UK.
Leaving Earth, Jane Grant, 2010, Published by University of Plymouth Press, UK.
H. Gerstenkorn, Note on the tidal evolution of the Earth-Moon system, Springer Verlag, 1969
H. Alfven and G. Arrhenius, Two Alternatives for the History of the Moon, www.varchive.org/itb/sansmoon.htm
I. Calvino, The Soft Moon, in Time and the Hunter, Jonathan Cape, 1970
Lem, Stanislaw, Solaris, Faber & Faber, 1961
Calvino, Italo, Time and the Hunter, Picador, 1967
Silk, Joseph, The Infinite Cosmos, Oxford University Press, 2006
Sagan, Carl, Cosmos, Abacus , 1995.