On the Map of the Moon: Wilhelm Beer


We know more about the surface of the moon  than about floor of the ocean.                                                                                          -Paul Snelgrove

All of us have seen the moon. We may have noticed the shadows of tall mountains and huge craters on the lunar surface.

It is fun to see forms, like a human face, a rabbit, or a chunk of Swiss cheese on the moon. But one can also calculate the moon’s distance and mass, and predict its phases. The knowledge thus acquired need not corrupt our experiential appreciation of moon’s beauty. Science need not diminish poetry.

    Continents and countries, oceans and mountains on earth have names. So do regions on the Moon.  Yes indeed, all the ups and downs and plains and peaks on our side of the Moon have been named. What is remarkable is that much of this was done already in the nineteenth century.

    Wilhelm Beer (born: 4 January 1797) was a Berlin Banker with a passion for astronomy. He had a special fondness for the Moon. He could well have exclaimed like the poet Keats:

        What is there in thee, Moon!

        That thou shoulds’t move my heart so potently?

After spending daylight hours  keeping accounts at the bank, Beer used to go to his little observatory at night. There, he and his friend Johann Maedler carefully observed the moon night after night through their telescope for eight long years during which they noted every shadow and shape of every nook and niche of the whole visible face of the Moon. Little by little, they  collected with meticulous care an enormous amount of data. In 1836 they published their mappa selenographica, the most detailed map of the Moon the world had every seen. It had measurements of the diameters of 148 craters and the heights of 830 mountains. Whether as Selene of the Greeks or as Shashi of the Hindus, every spot on the rotund face of the Moon-Goddess has been pictured and photographed today.  Wilhelm Beer’s work was pioneering in this regard.

     Since the expanses looked like oceans many regions bear such names as Mare Frigoris,  Oceanus Procellarum, and Mare Crisium. Mare is Latin for sea.

    When I am distressed by news brimming with hateful words and hurtful acts I let my mind wander  to  deeds of kindness and compassion in which vast numbers of people are engaged every day, and to works of art and philosophy that are the legacy of humanity. I also recall humanity’s scientific achievements. Not all science is done to serve technology, for the betterment of humanity, or to make better weapons for warfare. Often science is  also like music and mathematics, prayer and poetry: engaged for the refinement and uplifting of the human spirit. 

Progress of science is effected by many whose efforts complement and reinforce the overall structure that emerges. As with the focused persistence of a sculptor or pianist, the participating scientist spends countless hours immersed in the subject of the study. In former centuries this could be done on a part-time basis, as with Wilhelm Beer.  In our own times, it is not that easy.

June 4, 2016



Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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