Book Review: Our Moon, by Rebecca Boyle

On April 8, 2024, the Sun disappeared from the sky, blacked out entirely by the bulk of Earth’s moon. Tens of millions of people turned their eyes skyward to watch the recent total solar eclipse, the latest observers in thousands of years of human curiosity about our nearest cosmic neighbor. Although the Sun may have been the star of the show, a solar eclipse is just as much a celebration of the Moon. 

Our Moon, by Rebecca Boyle. Image Credit: Penguin Random House

It’s tragic, then, that we almost take it for granted. When was the last time you thought about the Moon? It hangs there in the sky, waxing and waning to either light up the night or cover us with a dark blanket peppered with stars. It’s been a constant companion of humanity and a celestial source of myth, power, creativity, and wonder; an enemy of astronomers trying to observe the faintest galaxies; and a friend of couples wanting to go for a moonlit stroll. 

But the Moon is so much more than that. It has also been humanity’s timekeeper and calendar, the obsession of the Babylonian emperor who caused the downfall of his kingdom, and a catalyst for various paradigm shifts in science, to name a few. Wonderfully merging the historical and cultural, spiritual and scientific, Rebecca Boyle’s new book Our Moon takes readers through four-and-a-half billion years of Earth’s special relationship with the Moon. In just 250 short pages, Boyle shows how the Moon literally shaped Earth, its inhabitants, and the entirety of human society.

Boyle divides this interconnected tale into three sections. The first one, How the Moon was Made, takes us back 4.5 billion years to a primordial Earth to discuss the longstanding question of how the Moon was created, a puzzle scientists still don’t share a consensus on, and what effects it has had on the Earth’s movement, rotation, magnetic field, chemical makeup, presence of life, and more. The first chapter of this section acts as a particularly captivating preview of the rest of the book, transporting readers to the surface of the Moon and describing what one would see, hear, smell, and feel while standing on its pockmarked and barren surface, complete with short anecdotes and transcripts of conversations from the Apollo missions. 

The second section, How the Moon Made Us, then focuses on the impact the Moon has made on life on Earth, both biologically and culturally. Boyle begins with a fascinating discussion of how the lunar cycle and tides affect animal behavior, from the breathing of the first generation of fish to mating wildebeest herds in the Serengeti. Boyle then weaves the story through epochs of history to illustrate how our understanding of the lunar phases and motions became interwoven into our timekeeping and religion.

Astronomer-readers may especially appreciate the last third of the book, How We Made the Moon, discussing early lunar observing efforts by historical heroes like Galileo and Kepler, as well as the lesser-known Thomas Harriot, whose sketches of the Moon’s surface will look familiar to many first-year astro lab students and predated Galileo’s by a few months. This final section (in which Boyle describes the death of geocentrism, the last 50 years of lunar exploration, and future prospects for lunar prospecting) felt a little compressed, but maybe it was just more familiar. Despite this, Boyle finds the space to charge readers to consider valuable questions that sometimes get lost in the fast-paced world of private space exploration. Is our Moon really “our” Moon? Who decides who can reach it, access its resources, stake claims to its dusty, desolate surface? While power and force have shaped human exploitation of the Earth for millennia, the Moon may finally give us the opportunity to do something different.

What really makes this book stand out, from its very first pages, is Boyle’s writing style. Far from merely informative, her descriptions of historic events and lunar landscapes are colorful and evocative, even poetic at times, with sentences such as “We project our dreams and our fervor onto its mottled surface and it serves as a mirror, both figuratively and literally…The Moon is Earth in inverse, a desolate rock whose scars whisper of our world’s violent past and underscore its riotous gardens of color and life. The Moon contains only what we imagine it to contain. It harbors only what we berth in its seas” (pgs 3-4). 

Similarly, Boyle introduces the book with a gripping narrative about her grandfather, a Marine at the Battle of Tarawa during WWII, and how US military planners failed to properly model the tides and stalled the initial phase of the invasion.  Short tales such as these, both historical and from the author’s perspective, are interspersed throughout the book, making it pleasantly read more like a narrative where the Moon is the main character rather than just a collection of facts. A series of full-color photographs of some of the artifacts and places mentioned in the book is also a welcome surprise for readers.

On the whole, Our Moon is wonderful, engaging, and informative, but sometimes the book would have benefited from a broader perspective. For example, a detailed discussion of the ancient Babylonian lunisolar calendar omits that the same calendar is in daily liturgical use by millions of modern-day Jews (otherwise only mentioned in a later footnote alongside other lunar/lunisolar calendar users like Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and users of traditional East Asian calendars). Much of the rest of the book focuses on the connections between modern humans and our ancestors, so it seems like a missed opportunity to discuss their continuing relevance in more detail. For example, the Muslim Hijri calendar still relies on direct observations of the moon to determine when months end and begin. The East Asian Lunar New Year is widely celebrated across the world where there are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other east Asian diasporas, and Hindu Holi celebrations (marking the last full Moon of winter) are community-wide events, especially at US universities. Every year, there’s at least one viral almanac story naming a full moon (e.g. “Super Blood Wolf Moon”), purportedly after Indigenous North American lunar traditions. While the purely solar Gregorian civil calendar is undeniably the main way many of us mark the passage of time, the children, as they say, yearn for the Moon.

Our Moon is a true gem of popular science writing, reminding us that the Moon and the Earth are not just distinct floating rocks in the Solar System, but rather that we are the Moon and the Moon is Earth. Without the Moon, Our Moon wouldn’t exist. Perhaps more importantly, Our Moon tells us that without the moon, we wouldn’t exist.

Our Moon: How Earth’s Celestial Companion Transformed the Planet, Guided Evolution, and Made Us Who We Are – Rebecca Boyle [$28.99 – Random House]

Thanks to Vanessa DeJesus and Penguin Random House for providing copies of “Our Moon” for review.

Astrobite written by Katya Gozman and Yoni Brande

Astrobite edited by: Briley Lewis

Featured Image Credit: Penguin Random House

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