Why Do the Sun and the Moon Appear to be the Same Size?

istock.com/1001slide
istock.com/1001slide

It’s just kind of a strange coincidence. The diameter of the Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon's, but it is also roughly 400 times farther away from Earth. These two qualities almost cancel each other out, and the Sun usually winds up looking either the same size or just a wee bit bigger than the moon to us.

How do we know how far away and how big the Sun and Moon are in the first place?

Since we can’t just wrap a giant measuring tape around a celestial body, we have to get a little creative.

Look up at the sky and imagine it as a big dome, which goes all away around the Earth, with the Sun, Moon and stars projected onto its surface. This is a neat little hypothetical that astronomers call the celestial sphere. If we think of the sphere as being 360 degrees, like a circle, we can talk about the things we see on the dome in terms of angular size (that is, the “visual diameter” of the object measured as an angle) and angular distance (the distance separating two objects measured as an angle).

We’ve been able to get a better handle on the actual distance thanks to spaceflight and laser and radar technology. For the Moon, Apollo astronauts left retro-reflectors on its surface, which we bounced lasers off of from 1969 to 2009. By timing how long it took for the laser beam to make the trip there and back, astronomers could work out the Moon’s physical distance.

For the Sun, we tried the same sort of thing and bounced radio waves off it, but the star’s outer atmosphere scattered the waves too much for accurate measurements. Astonomers switched to a more reliable method that uses German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Third Law of Planetary Motion, observations of the other planets’ movements, and radar measurements of their distances to work out an indirect, but accurate, measurement for the distance of the Sun.

Once we have the angular size of something in the sky and its actual distance, we can use them to calculate the object’s physical diameter.

But don't get used to them looking this way

The Sun and Moon didn’t always look so close in size from Earth, though, and they won’t continue to do so forever. The Moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of about 4 centimeters per year. In a few billion years, our descendants won’t be looking up at the same sky we are, and the size difference between the Sun and Moon will be much more noticeable.

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

iStock.com/bycostello
iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER