Sunday, February 20, 2011

How much Time the Moon Loses, and what Math is for

The moon is higher, setting later, this morning. She loses time, of course. Every day she rises and sets later -- I don't remember how much, exactly: 45 minutes? Hang on a sec, I'll work it out.

I forget, sometimes, that the sky is not so legible to everyone, that many people don't even have clear in their minds the path of the zodiac -- difficult though it is for me to understand. It's the same path the sun and the moon walk, higher in summer, lower in winter: how can you live in the world, day after day, and not realize that the the sun and the moon appear only in a certain swath of the sky?

I know that learning the names and appearance of the planets is something only a few of us do -- and that only a few of us learn the patterns of the stars well enough to say certainly, that has to be a planet, it can't be a star, because there is no star there! -- but everyone knows the sun and moon. Except, apparently, they don't. It seems that at every full moon, I hear someone marveling over the coincidence that this moon happened to be rising right around sunset! or setting right around sunrise!

Um, yes. That's what a full moon is, it's the moon standing (vis a vis us) opposite to the sun. It's not a rare coincidence. It's been happening, every 28-and-some days, since our species was sniffing about on all fours.

Anyway, since the moon has to slip back to the same spot in the sky in roughly 28 days, she's got to slip 28 times through the 24 hour clock of the sky, meaning she has to slip about 24 28ths of an hour each time. 24/28 = x/60 -- let's say 51 minutes? Close enough.

This is what math is for. So you don't have to be helpless and look it up, if you don't remember something like how much the moon slips every night. It's not rocket science; it's simple arithmetic. They taught you this in third grade so that you wouldn't have to take anyone's word for it: you can do it yourself.

Don't let anyone push you around: keep your math skills up to snuff. Work little problems like this every day, take the extra couple minutes and satisfy yourself that you're right. It's a magnificently empowering feeling. And you can surprise and amaze your friends by telling them exactly when they're going to see the moon rise tomorrow night. This stuff works. It's real. You can bet your life on it, in fact, we all do, every day, because this the way the engineers who built your cars and roads and bridges figured out how much they could take. Simple physics, simple arithmetic, for the most part.

It's our birthright, as human beings: it's our inheritance. It maddens me when people turn away from math and science as disempowering. This is empowerment. It's when you don't know your math and science that people can lead you around by the nose and hoodwink you. You don't like your math teacher? He's a condescending sexist oaf with the aesthetic sensitivities of a roundworm? Fine. Hate him. But take what he has on offer anyway, because this, this is genuine power, this is the real stuff. This is one of the fundamental ways you get a grip on the world.

Don't give it up because you're sensitive aesthetic person. So am I. I'm a poet and a massage therapist, for God's sake, the very model of a pansy aesthete, and you'll take my math away when you pry it out of my cold dead brain.

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