Beavers on the Moon: The Great Astronomy Hoax of 1835

On August 25, 1835, readers who stopped in front of the bellowing newsboys and produced a penny for a copy of New York's Sun received a lot to take in. Three-quarters of the front page were devoted to what the newspaper claimed was an excerpt from the credible-sounding Edinburgh Journal of Science. In deepest South Africa, a renowned astronomer named John Herschel had made a fantastic discovery.

There was life on the moon. A lot of it. Plants. Beavers that stood on their hind legs. One-horned goats. And bat-people.

Over the following five days, readers were transfixed by a breathless account of Herschel’s peerless (but not peer-reviewed) examination of the moon’s populated surface, using a seven-ton telescope that he had recently constructed. Sweeping his gaze across the lunar environment, Herschel took note of colorful flowers, soul-enriching temples, and humanoids who could fly.

While it seemed too spectacular to be true, Herschel was a real scientist, and a well-respected one; he had previously been quoted pondering life on the moon. He was also known to be in South Africa. The Edinburgh Journal of Science was legitimate, too. Who was anyone to call him a liar?

This “stupendous discovery,” as the paper dubbed it, was to be celebrated. And if discovering life on the moon wasn’t enough, Herschel had also “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.”

The reports captivated the city, spreading to other papers and inviting discussion over their plausibility. Who were these bipedal beavers and moon people? And had they found religion?

A rendering of Herschel's moon-peering telescope.

Founded by editor Benjamin Day in 1833, the Sun was a pioneering newspaper in several ways. Utilizing a steam-powered printing press, it could rattle off tens of thousands of copies in a relatively short period of time; selling for a penny, it was much cheaper than New York’s six-cent alternatives. It was also the first paper in history to make use of newsboys, who would stand on busy streets barking headlines at passersby. At a bargain price, the Sun needed to maintain and bolster its circulation of 15,000 readers in order to attract advertisers.

What they didn’t necessarily need was accuracy. Unlike the later papers of record and their staunch commitments to journalistic integrity, the Sun and other news sources of the era weren’t expected to tell the truth all of the time. Items could be satirical or factual; readers might sometimes conflate the two. Before radio, newspapers were perceived as the catch-all entertainment of the day. While not quite as bombastic as the tabloids of the following century, some creative license was expected.

It was under this hazy climate that the paper began to run a startling account of astronomer John Herschel’s work. (His father, William, had discovered Uranus in 1781.) On August 21, the Sun printed what was essentially a teaser, promising readers a glimpse of “astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description.” Four days later, the first of six parts appeared, most of it devoted to a detailed explanation of how Herschel had been able to bear witness to such marvels.

Owing to a “hydro-oxygen microscope” element added to a gigantic telescopic lens, Herschel was able to illuminate a view from great distances. The 24-foot optical device was forged by expert glassmakers. With the power of 42,000x magnification, the report explained, he had hoped to observe possible insect life on the moon from his work base 35 miles from Cape Town, South Africa.

As the series unfolded, it was clear he had far exceeded those expectations. Astonished readers discovered on day two of the series that after training his telescope on the moon, Herschel had caught sight of a dark red flower sprouting from basaltic rock, as well as water and trees. Animals similar to bison roamed the grounds. A bluish single-horned goat trotted in full view of the scope.

On day three, Andrew Grant, the purported author of the articles and a declared associate of Herschel’s, described their most wondrous finding yet:

“…the biped beaver. The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion.”

These sophisticated beavers, Grant reported, had built huts more impressive “than those of many tribes of human savages,” with smoke emanating from their tops. They had apparently mastered the concept of fire.

Toasty beaver homes would be hard to top, but Grant had more up his sleeve. On day four, readers learned the men had witnessed “large winged creatures” that were “certainly ... like human beings” and “engaged in conversation.” (The discovery pre-dated the Weekly World News reveal of Batboy by well over a century.)

Portrait of a man-bat from an edition of the moon series published in Naples, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Day five brought a description of a temple-like construct that may have indicated these creatures were prone to worship an unknown religion; day six brought mention of a larger variety of the bat-people, who ate fruit in a “rather uncouth” manner.

The final entry in the series also offered an unfortunate postscript of sorts. According to Grant, Herschel’s daily examination of the moon ended abruptly when his telescope had been left in an unfavorable position, absorbing the sun’s rays and sending his observatory into flames. The high-powered device had been damaged and needed to be repaired. 

The story of life on the moon quickly spread, not only to other New York publications but into other eastern states and then Europe. The New Yorker apparently professed its support for the account; Baptist missionaries reportedly contemplated whether the bat-people might need donations or the teachings of the gospel. The scientific community didn't immediately declare the Sun’s reporting fraudulent—after all, they had so little information about the moon, no one could unequivocally state that there wasn’t life there.

James Gordon Bennett was another story. Editor of a competing penny paper, the New York Herald, Bennett took to his pages on August 31, immediately after the serial had wrapped, and accused the Sun of perpetuating a hoax upon the public. While the Edinburgh Journal of Science was a real publication, Bennett wrote, it had merged with another two years prior and, effectively, didn’t exist. He pointed his finger specifically at Richard Adams Locke, who had recently arrived at the Sun as editor, and had met Bennett briefly during a criminal trial and expressed an interest in astronomy. Locke had also enjoyed success selling his collected newspaper work in pamphlet form—exactly what the Sun had done with the moon story, moving 60,000 copies in a month.

Locke denied it; the two sparred back and forth in their respective papers. Even after mail arriving from Europe in September confirmed the hoax as fiction, Locke refused to budge. Finally, after leaving the Sun in 1836, Locke began to use “author of the moon hoax” as part of his byline. In 1840, he went into more detail, saying he intended the piece to be satire and a commentary on theologians and Christian pundits like Thomas Dick, a science writer who trumpeted the idea of life on other planets without any scientific basis for doing so.

Surprisingly, readers held no grudge against the Sun. Once the hoax was revealed, most found it to be a fun, clever method of raising awareness—and circulation—of the newspaper, which boasted of 30,000 readers two years later. Even Herschel was initially amused, finding it an innocent bit of comedy.

The only curmudgeon seems to have been Edgar Allan Poe: The writer had written a similarly absurd story about a manned balloon flight to the moon in the Southern Literary Messenger two months prior that received relatively little attention at the time. He accused Locke of stealing his idea; Locke, who died in 1871, never acknowledged Poe as an influence.

The Sun remained in business until 1916, dealing mostly in human interest stories and local New York news (after a series of mergers, it continued publishing under various names until the 1960s). Although there’s no evidence they reported any further on the moon’s inhabitants, they never printed a retraction, either.

NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]


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