Lunar Phases

A picture of the moon’s cyclical lunar phases

As we sit comfortably on planet Earth, instinctively believing we are the center of the universe, it is sometimes easy to forget that reality may not always be how we humans see it.  The cyclic visual wonder of the lunar phases, for instance, gives the illusion that different amounts of the moon are illuminated as the cycle goes on. And through this change, many implications can arise. Indeed, mythology and legend have let us to believe that the moon’s phase from our perspective can have drastic effects on our blue marble itself.

It can be counterintuitive to learn that the moon’s phases are not actually anything special. It’s simply caused by the way we see the moon – which is always half-illuminated by the Sun, just like the Earth (with a possible exception of a total lunar eclipse, in which the moon is completely in the Earth’s shadow). The moon, being tidally locked to our planet, must always show the same side of the moon, leaving the other side, the so-called “dark side” – invisible to us. But even this name is misleading. The dark side of the moon receives just as much light as the “light side.” If it didn’t, we would not have our beautiful lunar phases. A new moon is caused when all of the light from the Sun hits the “dark side,” leaving none for the side we are familiar with.

Since the moon is always half-illuminated, the phases solely depends on our perspective of it. A lunar quarter, where the moon appears half lit, is simply us seeing it exactly from the side. In a full moon, we see its entire illuminated face. The more stereotypical crescent moons are simply the moon viewed at an angle where more of the poorly-named “dark side” is illuminated compared to the light side. There really is nothing mysterious about the side of the moon we never see, nor is there anything otherworldly about the moon’s quite predictable phases.

But who knows – maybe there are those who dread looking up in the night sky once every 29.5 days.

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