Under a blue moon
The scene: ink-dark nightfall over a lone house on a hilltop. Or! Better yet: the night sky over an impenetrable forest. Wispy clouds of meandering significance skulk across it, one in particular lighter than the others with milky, translucent illumination.
Cue the pipe organ in minor key!
The cloud moves like an oil spill, slipping across the sky, revealing…
A full moon!
Werewolves rampage through the forest! Coyotes bay! Children act squirrelly and refuse to go to sleep! It’s lunacy! And we’re getting a double dose this month.
In a relatively uncommon astronomical occurrence — it happens, on average, every 2.7 years, according to NASA astronomer Dr. Sten Odenwald — August 2012 will see two full moons: The first was Aug. 2, and the second, colloquially known as a “blue moon,” will be Aug. 31.
Odenwald wrote, “There are 29.53 days between any two full moons. There are 365.24 days in the year, which equals 12.37 lunar months. The little bit that is left over (0.37) means that there can be 13 full moons during years that are about 1/0.37 = 2.7 years apart.”
So, what does that mean for the hapless Earth-bound, vis-a-vis werewolf bites? Is August to be a particularly perilous month? Will those suffering “lunar lunacy” go staggering through ordinarily quiet neighborhoods?
No more than they would at any other time, according to researchers.
It may be romantic in a fatalistic way to believe that the full moon affects human mood and behavior, and various Greek and Roman philosophers implied that our “moist” brains are subject to the moon like tides, but there is simply no evidence.
In their 2005 study “Bad Moon Rising: the persistent belief of lunar connections to madness,” University of Toronto researchers Alina Iosif and Bruce Ballon acknowledged that “before the advent of gas lighting at the beginning of the 19th century, the light of the moon permitted outdoor activities that were otherwise impossible. Full-moon nights are 12 times brighter (under a clear sky) than at first or last quarter, and therefore it is likely that people stayed up later and slept less than the rest of the time. Even partial sleep deprivation over the course of a single night can induce mania, and it is plausible that sleep disturbance during a full moon may function as a positive feedback once a manic episode has begun in a predisposed individual. Perhaps this lies at the origin of the association between madness and the full moon.”
In a 1985 meta-analysis of 37 mental health studies called “Much Ado About the Full Moon: A Meta-Analysis of Lunar-Lunacy Research,” researchers James Rotton, Roger Culver and Ivan W. Kelly tried to determine if there was a relationship between, among other factors, phases of the moon, types of lunar cycles, geography and types of lunacy, including mental hospital admissions, crisis calls and criminal offenses.
Their findings? That the moon’s phase accounted for 1 percent or less of the variance in behaviors generally termed “lunacy.” They reported that “lunar lunacy” hypotheses failed three tests: predictability, replicability and statistical significance. They found that study participants’ belief in lunar lunacy correlated with their belief in paranormal phenomena.
Which might explain why, in a 2000 study, British researchers Richard D. Neal and Malcolm Colledge found a small but statistically significant rise in general practice consultations six days after a full moon. Call it the “Transylvania effect”: It’s creepy because we say it’s creepy.
But enough about the threat of werewolves! How about the poetry of it all, the blue moon. Will it really be blue Aug. 31?
Not unless a volcano explodes or entire forests burn down, filling the sky with particles that could diffract light waves and possibly make the moon appear blue, astronomers say. Otherwise, it’s simply a term to express rarity.
In a clergy-attacking “Proper Dyaloge” called “Rede me and be nott wrothe/For I saye no thinge but trothe,” written in 1528 by Franciscan friars William Roy and Jerome Barlowe, a character declares, “Yf they say the mone is blewe/We must believe that it is true.” It’s considered one of the first instances of a blue moon being used to imply something fantastical, absurd or rare.
Canadian folklorist Philip Hiscock, in an 1999 Sky & Telescope magazine article, pointed out that its meaning as something rare, “blue moon” had been incorrectly used for decades, tracing it to a 1946 Sky & Telescope article that incorrectly interpreted the extremely convoluted 1937 Maine Farmers’ Almanac. The author of that article wrote that it was the second full moon in a month, when the almanac actually meant it was the third of four full moons in a season.
According to Hiscock, the blue-moon-as-second-full-moon-in-a-month definition became widespread after being used on the radio show StarDate on Jan. 31, 1980.
But if we’re following the Old Farmers’ Almanac — and really, it would be foolish not to — a blue moon is the third of four full moons in a season. Also, according to the almanac, the first full moon of August is most commonly called a Sturgeon Moon, a designation attributed to Native American tribes that lived near and fished in the Great Lakes, and caught a lot of sturgeon in August. A few other tribes know it as a Green Corn Moon or a Grain Moon.
All of which is to say, wander outside on the evening of Aug. 31. Look up and into the milky full moon, marvel at its brightness, sigh over its beauty. And watch out for werewolves.