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Greek-American Stories: To the Moon

Did you know that an ancient Greek philosopher was exiled for claiming the moon was a mountainous rock, not a god? 2500 years ago, Anaxagoras correctly determined that the rocky moon reflected light from the sun, explaining lunar phases and eclipses.

Finding information on the life and studies of Anaxagoras is a challenge for historians. He had written one book only and that is lost to us. But, fragments that briefly describe his studies and life can be cited within the works of Aristotle and Plato. Persistent in his observations, Anaxagoras believed that the moon was a mountainous rock like the earth and the sun, which he considered a burning rock. He said, “it is the sun that casts brightness onto the moon.” This explained the additional; natural phenomena such as eclipses and lunar phases.

Born in Clazomenae in the Ionian land on the coast of Asia Minor east of Greece’s mainland, he grew up during the Ionian enlightenment, an intellectual revolution that began around 600 BC. When he relocated to Athens his contemporaries brought new concepts to the democracy there, including the philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries BC who taught there were a few fundamental elements like water, air, fire, and earth.

Anaxagoras, however, thought that there must be an infinite number of elements. This idea was his way of resolving an intellectual dispute between other philosophers who lived west of Greece, in Greek-colonized Italy, like Pythagoras and Parmenides who in particular influenced Anaxagoras’ ideas about astronomy.

Anaxagoras realized that the occasional darkening of the moon resulted from the sun, moon and Earth lining up so that the moon passes directly in front of the sun, the skies then darken during the day, a phenomenon we now call a solar eclipse.

His forward thinking got him labeled as a chief denier that the sun and moon were deities. In democratic Athens his findings should have been welcomed, but Anaxagoras, friend and advisor to the statesman, Pericles, found that political factions would soon conspire against him. In power for 30 years, Pericles led Athens into the Peloponnesian wars against Sparta. His enemies blamed him for excessive aggression and arrogance. Unable to attack the Athenian leader, they went after his friends. Anaxagoras was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for breaking laws against what was considered religious and moral impiety.

But, still powerful and popular, Pericles was able to free Anaxagoras and prevent his execution. Though his life was spared, the philosopher who dared to question the divinity of the moon, found himself in exile in Lampsacus at the edge of Hellespont. Thankfully, all his findings regarding the moon sun and Earth live on to this day. In recognition, an orbiting spacecraft, some 2,500 years later and a lunar crater now bear the name Anaxagoras. Another crater 560 miles southward was named Plato.

The Olympian goddess of the moon, Artemis, daughter of Zeus, is being recognized once again by having her name grace the mega rocket that will be traveling to the moon, soon. Apollo, the god of sun and light, became the name of the rocket manned by the astronauts not long ago. By the way, astronauts, in case it had escaped your notice, is a combination of two Greek words; Astro: ‘star’, and ‘nauts’: ‘ναυτες’, or navigators, if you prefer. So, in a way, ancient Greeks are being remembered and given a little credit in modern times, as deserved.

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