To the Moon and Back

To the Moon and Back

If you have been parenting young children in an English-speaking country in the last two decades you must be familiar with the popular children’s book Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. The book and the anime series in particular are among Appa and Minette‘s favorites. There is no question they strongly identify with the two main characters, Big Nutbrown Hare and his child Little Nutbrown Hare.

In the original book Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare take turns asking each other “Guess how much I love you?” and coming up with more and more expansive answers. In the end Little Nutbrown Hare proclaims he loves Big Nutbrown Hare “to the moon” and finally falls asleep, cradled by his father, who then whispers “I love you right up to the moon — and back.”

Minette is now nine years old, so Guess How Much I Love You is a bit passé, though still enjoyed once in a while when she (or her father) is in a nostalgic mood. Fast forward to a more current occurrence of the moon in our home: the moon globe Appa gave to Minette a couple of years ago, featuring numerous craters and their names.

There are more than 1 million craters larger than 1 km in diameter on the moon. The most notable ones (some 1,500) are named, usually after scientists and explorers. The tradition of naming lunar craters was started long ago, in the 17th century, by the Italian astronomer and Catholic priest Giovanni Battista Riccioli. Over the last century the name assignment has been regulated by the International Astronomical Union.

Now, here is the thing: the demographic of the lunar crater names is hardly diverse, as Appa remarked as soon as he took a close look at Minette’s globe. Non-Europeans are few and far between. There is quite a clutter of Flemish and Scandinavian astronomers in particular. Not exactly surprising if you consider where and when the naming hobby started, but still worth the attention of those of us who would like science to be a field more widely open to every child.

Also to be noted: as of last year only 32 of the 1,578 named lunar craters honored women — and none of the largest ones, needless to say… It feels like “to the moon and back” has taken an entirely different meaning here: just as we turn to the moon to dream and expand, we are brought back to a long history of white male dominance here on earth.

The good news is that some scientific institutions have become aware of the unfortunate symbolism of the lunar crater names. The NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute has successfully advocated for unnamed craters to be named after notable American women and minority scientists. I was also glad to learn that a crater was named after Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program, two years ago. A meaningful piece of news in our family, as Appa’s father worked as an engineer in the Indian space agency team that got to launch the country’s first satellites.

The moon is not just a scientific object though. It has inspired countless myths, stories, and works of art all around the world. I guess it is fitting to sign off with this one: Nila, Nila, Odi Vaa, a beloved traditional Tamil song Minette has learned from her Indian family.

Nila, Nila, odi vaa
Nillaamal odi vaa
Malai mela eri vaa
Malligai poo kondu vaa

Moon, Moon, come run to me
Keep running
Climb over the mountain
Bring a jasmine flower when you come to me

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