Susan Morris, the founder and owner of Morris Tutoring, and I have been trading observations about social distancing. The term may be new but the concept is not. Giovanni Boccaccio, one of Italy’s greatest writers, penned The Decameron in the mid-to-late 1300s. It’s the story of ten young friends (seven women and three men) who flee Florence to escape the Black Death and take shelter in a remote villa, where they entertain each other by telling stories until the plague passes. Edgar Allan Poe riffed on this idea when he wrote the short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Susan reminded me that Sir Isaac Newton, the Einstein of his day, took refuge from the Great Plague of London in 1665 by leaving college and sheltering in place at his distant family home until it was safe to return. It was during this hiatus that he had his famous “aha” moment while seeing an apple fall from a tree.
Then my thoughts turned from social distancing to spatial distancing, and forces (many described by Newton) that keep order in the universe.
The moon is a hot topic of conversation this year. In 2020, two supermoons occur. The first was March 9; the next will be April 7. A supermoon is a full moon that happens when the moon is at its nearest point to Earth in its orbit. Such moons appear 14% larger and 30% brighter than ordinary full moons. They may also appear tinted with red or rust. Hence, “blood moon.” October 2020 will have two full moons, and when this happens — about once every 2-3 years — the second full moon of the month is called a blue moon. This year’s blue moon is special because it occurs on Halloween. The last time the moon was full on Halloween was in 2001.
Several planets have more than one moon, but until recently the Earth has had only one. On Feb. 15 this year, scientists discovered that we have a “mini-moon” orbiting the Earth, and that it probably showed up about three years ago. It is so tiny — perhaps 10 feet in diameter — that it went unnoticed until now. Is it a broken-off fragment of the known moon? A space rock? An asteroid trapped in Earth’s gravitational field? Or even a big chunk of human-created space debris? No one knows for sure, but it’s not expected to hang around for long. By April it is expected to drift out of sight … but perhaps not out of mind.
Due to its closeness to Earth and its unmistakable brightness in the night sky, Venus has been called the evening star and the lantern of the world. About every eight years, Venus brightens up for its “Glory Nights.” On April 2-3, it will be the highest in the sky that it ever gets and it will remain visible almost until midnight. Its brightness will increase over the course of April, until it is bright enough to cast a shadow, then it will be gone from the evening sky for the next 50 days.
Pluto lost its planet designation in 2006, when a space rock 27% more massive was discovered, along with several other Pluto-sized objects in the same part of space. Using mathematics, physicists determined that there exists a still-undiscovered Planet Nine in the far reaches of the solar system. This planet is expected to be six times the mass of Earth, with an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium covering a core of rock and ice. What makes it especially hard to find is that it is 15 to 20 times further away than Pluto. Even with today’s most powerful telescope, it would appear as a barely-visible speck of light. But light it would be because it’s illuminated by the sun.
Neptune was discovered in much the same way. Physics predicted that there had to be a planet beyond Uranus. A location was determined, telescopes were aimed in that direction, and presto: Neptune! Planet Nine will not be as easy to find, requiring a perfect storm of equipment, mathematics and theoretical brilliance.