When I was a student at Bowling Green State University, I worked for the Astronomy Department. I took students up to the roof and showed them the night sky. I would set up small telescopes on the roof for them to look at things. Maybe Saturn’s rings. Maybe Mars. Maybe the Orion Nebula. Something interesting for them to see. Some people were the general public. Many were students from astronomy classes who would come knowing that doing so counted as extra credit or something like that. The students had a handout where they were supposed to answer questions and sketch something that they saw through the telescope. Pretty easy stuff.
One night, a girl came up to me and asked a question about what she saw in the telescope. That night I had focused on Jupiter and it was even possible to see three of his moons as small bright points of light.
“What exactly am I seeing,” she asked. I told her that it was Jupiter. “No,” she replied. “The little bright things.”
“Those are some of Jupiter’s moons,” I explained.
“No. Really. What are they?”
I was a little perplexed at that point as I assured her that they were indeed the moons of Jupiter.
“Then what do we have?”
I pointed out that we also have a moon. If the conversation had stopped there, or if it had taken a different direction than it did, I probably would not be telling this story. Instead, the girl focused on me in all seriousness and asked a question that haunts me even now … almost twenty years later.
“How many moons do we have,” she asked.
Throughout history and mythology, there have been feats of great will and strength. Hercules and his labours comes to mind. There have been awesome achievements of humanity: the Parthenon, the Pyramids, Machu Pichu, Stonehenge and the like. There have been epics of scope and grandeur like the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Lusiads. I hereby submit that the will it took me to restrain myself from any snide comments and to keep even a note of sarcasm from my voice ranks with the best of those.
“We only have one moon,” I stated. And as she began to ask, I cut her off. “It’s a new moon tonight. You won’t be able to see it.”
My restraint was justified. I have always felt that every question should be treated with equal seriousness. We should never make a person feel dumb. After all, it was better that she ask the question and move past her misapprehensions than remain in ignorance. Besides, everyone has a first science class. I did not want to be the guy who turned someone off of learning because I had acted like a jerk.
For lo these many years, I have remembered this event and filed it away as a sad case where someone just did not pay enough attention in kindergarten. After all, everyone knows the Moon. No one past elementary school would really wonder how many we have. We look in the sky. We see the Moon. We recognize it and that is that. It was a singularity. An isolated event. I was just the lucky guy to get the question.
But today on the BBC webpage, I saw the article Police Say UFO Was Just the Moon.
For the record, I know that the issue of how many moons we have is not quite that cut and dried. We have three natural satellites the last time I checked. Still, for all common conversations, the question of ‘how many moons the Earth has’ gives the answer of ‘one.’ And there is still no excuse in my eyes for any human adult who has had sight for their entire life to find our Moon unrecognizable, nor to wonder how many we have.