Today, we are all familiar with the enormous amount of fake and misleading material clogging up the Internet.
However, what was probably the most widely believed fake news story in astronomy happened back in the 19th century. It sold many thousands of newspapers as readers devoured each instalment of what was a work of fiction.
In 1833, British astronomer John Herschel finished cataloguing objects in the northern sky and decided to do the same for the southern sky too. That would require moving to the Southern Hemisphere, so in 1834 he and his family moved to the southern tip of South Africa.
It so happened that around the same time, the British Admiralty decided an observatory should be set up in the Southern Hemisphere to help advance navigation. That complemented the work of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, operating on the outskirts of London, in the Northern Hemisphere. The observatory was very close to Herschel's home, so it was inevitable that he and Thomas Maclear, the director of the observatory, would end up working together on a number of projects, some astronomical, and some not.
Robert Locke was a reporter for a New York newspaper. For some reason, he latched on to Herschel's move to South Africa and wrote an article about his going there with an amazing new telescope, which he planned to use to observe the Moon. It was so powerful it would even show insects (if any) crawling around on the lunar surface.
This was rubbish. Even today we cannot make such a telescope. Locke came up with a fictitious “Dr. Grant,” who went with Herschel and would report back on the astronomical discoveries as they rolled out. Grant "reported" the telescope would soon start to show the most amazing things. There then followed a series of articles extolling the capabilities of the marvellous new telescope. Interest was huge. America was agog, and wanted to read more.
As one might expect, Herschel and his telescope produced no such revelations, so Locke filled the gap with his imagination. He first reported the dark patches we see on the face of the Moon, and named after seas, were in fact really water oceans, not the plains of solidified lava we know them to be today.
At the time, few members of the public knew what those dark patches were, so the idea they were really oceans was widely accepted. Locke went on write about plants and forests on the lunar surface. The telescope was so powerful, individual flowers could be seen and identified.
Understandably, public interest was intense. However, to sustain this level of excitement, new, more dramatic discoveries were needed. So Locke put his imagination to work again. He reported the observation of amethysts, 30 metres tall, sticking up out of the sea. This was certainly amazing stuff, but what the public really wanted to know was if there was animal life on the Moon, especially people.
Further articles described large, bison-like animals, grazing close to the edge of lunar woodland. There were lots of other animals too, including huge beavers that walked on two feet, carrying their young in their arms. As one might have expected, there were also unicorns.
Finally, Locke reported Hershel saw people, just like us but with bat wings, because the lower lunar gravity made flight possible. On the Moon we would weigh about a sixth of what we weigh here on Earth.
To dig himself out of the hole he had dug himself into, he said the telescope had been destroyed in a fire.
Rather belatedly the newspaper called in experts to evaluate the articles and Locke admitted it was a hoax. Surprisingly, it all calmed down, everybody had a good laugh and Herschel himself largely ignored the whole thing.
•Saturn lies in the southeast after sunset, with Jupiter in the east.
•Venus rises in the early hours.
• The Moon will reach its last quarter Dec. 4.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.