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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Super Blue Blood Moon
distributed 2/2/18 - ©2018

In today's Eco-Justice Notes, I almost take a break from matters of great significance. An astronomical event of passing interest leads me into considerations of categorical confusion and media hype. Ultimately, though, my light-hearted musings of the day do lead to some practical comments on how we can easily be distracted from matters of great significance.

Doesn't that sound better than yet another analysis of the State of the Union speech?

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The excited news release from Cape Canaveral, Fla, said:

On Wednesday, much of the world will get to see not only a blue moon and a super moon but also a total lunar eclipse, all rolled into one. There hasn't been a triple lineup like this since 1982, and the next won't occur until 2037.

Wow! A triple lineup of lunar events! Let's look at each part.

  • A "blue moon" is the second full moon within a calendar month. This happens about once every three years -- thus the saying, "once in a blue moon," meaning rarely. (For a more complex description of the saying, see a British site dedicated to linguistic history.)
  • A super moon "is a new or full moon closely coinciding with perigee -- the moon's closest point to Earth in its monthly orbit." From my own perceptions, casual skywatchers only get excited about a super moon when it is the full one that appears a bit larger and brighter. Super moons roll around, in sets of three, about every 413 days. Super moons (both bright and dim) do cause higher than usual tides, so they're important to people on the coast.
  • A total lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through Earth's shadow. Earth is directly between the sun and the moon, so the moon is always full when there's an eclipse. Sunlight passing through Earth's atmosphere is refracted (like it is at sunrise and sunset), so the shadow has a reddish tinge. Those seeking colorful language call an eclipse a "blood moon." (A total solar eclipse, like the dramatic one last August, occurs when Earth passes through the moon's shadow. The moon has no atmosphere, so there aren't any pretty colors.)

Add all of these up and we get the headline-worthy name of a "Super Blue Blood Moon."

The wonderful children's TV show, Sesame Street, had a recurring exercise in observation and critical thinking tied to a little song.

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

Out of the triple lineup of lunar events, which one is not like the others? Which one just doesn't belong? (I'll wait while you decide ... Time's up!)

Both the super moon and the eclipse have to do with details of the actual orbital path of the moon. An outside observer could notice and describe both events accurately. A blue moon, though, has nothing to do with our satellite's orbit; it only has to do with how the very regular appearances of a full moon line up with the quirkily irregular Gregorian calendar ("30 days hath September ..."). Somebody using a different calendar would never notice a blue moon.

That opening news release has things garbled. It gushed that we can see "not only a blue moon and a super moon but also a total lunar eclipse, all rolled into one." For most of us, a total lunar eclipse is the dramatic sight worth some special effort to see. (Here in Colorado, this week's was an early morning event, with totality beginning at sunrise.)

A super moon is an interesting curiosity, giving us the opportunity to say, "Golly! Look at the size of that moon!" when we see it rising. Or, if you live in a low-lying section of Miami, "Golly! My street is flooding again!"

There is absolutely nothing to see about a blue moon that looks any different from any other full moon. It is just a full moon at the very end of a calendar month. The announcement that you can see a blue moon by looking at the sky instead of your calendar gives the notion that the moon is doing something unusual. That mistaken impression can be displaced by looking at the beautiful regularity of a graphical lunar calendar, which shows the phase of the moon for each day. The patterns of nature are far more dramatic than the oddities of our calendars.

The strange excitement about this week's eclipse mixed together two different categories of events -- astronomical and calendars -- and tried to tell us that the celestial events were more important because of a calendar detail. (Watch out for December 31, 2028, when there will be even more hype about the New Year's Eve Blue Blood Moon!)

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Jumbling categories is fun for those who are looking for unique and distinctive experiences. It allows a fairly routine event to be seen as remarkable. (While there's another total lunar eclipse in less than a year -- Jan. 21, 2019 -- the next super blue blood moon isn't until 2037!) But mixing up dramatically different types of events or experiences or analysis can be dangerously confusing and distracting.

In these Notes, I often talk about things that are "in the headlines." But those headlines are as likely to be about celebrity gossip as they are about significant events. Most of us have well-honed filters to distinguish between important news and journalistic fluff, but more and more, the way stories are presented on-line can make it both harder and more important to be attentive to the difference in the categories. Watch out for "click bait" that tries to deceive you. And watch out for presidential tweets (perhaps a better phrasing is "tweets from the president") that push trivial matters up to the top of the news feed, and displace more consequential topics. "In the headlines" is a broader category than "makes a difference."

The two different categories of lunar events, I said, are defined by whether an outside observer could describe them. The moon's perigee and an eclipse are universally recognizable. A blue moon depends on our calendar's frame of reference.

That "outside observer" test is a good one to remember. Are issues that are important to you related to events in the world that would be noticed by somebody outside of your circle of friends, or your political bubble? Would the outside observer show you things that you're not noticing?

The outside observer test helps avoid two problems.

  • Things close to home may seem disproportionately important to you, but somebody else wouldn't see anything all that remarkable. Placing too much emphasis on your own perspective and needs leads to the NIMBY problem -- saying "not in my backyard" to pollution or disruption, but being OK with it happening somewhere else. An outside observer might suggest toning down your personal reaction from your limited frame of reference.
  • On the flip side, things far from home never make it to our awareness or our priority list. For a long time, news reporting in the United States has had a strong domestic bias, and has largely ignored the rest of the world. We have the journalistic equivalent of big stories of a blue moon (which depend on our frame of reference), and not noticing an eclipse (seen by people all around the world). Driving home from evening meetings, I hear radio broadcasts of the BBC's morning news report coming from London, and there's a remarkably different mix and priority of international news. I'm grateful for that external news source.

A little bit of media coverage of this week's Super Blue Blood Moon isn't that big a deal. My overblown reaction to those stories, though, has led me to take a closer look at the confusion and distortions that we often encounter in categorizing and experiencing more important things.

Let's remember that outside observer, and check in frequently to see if our categories and perceptions are legitimate.

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If you've read all the way to the bottom, I offer an extra bonus: For a fun couple of moments looking for "things that just don't belong," scan through 10 amusing photos of mis-matched sets. How quickly can you spot the one that is different?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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