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Elliot: Lunar distances

BY BEAU ELLIOT | FEBRUARY 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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You probably thought you just barely survived Presidents Day, but actually you survived (we assume) near-Earth asteroid day. Congratulations.

Yes, near-Earth asteroid 2000 EM26 apparently missed us, just judging by the look of downtown — by 8.8 lunar distances is the figure I heard. Being no expert, I’m going to go with it, which is probably the smart thing to do when you’re talking lunar distances.

What is a lunar distance you wonder? (Well, you’d be a lunatic not to wonder.)

Lunar distance equals (or =, if you’re into symbolly things, not that “symbolly” is a word, but who cares these days) is around 238,900 miles (or 384,400 kilometers, if you’re into kilometery things). The Moon’s orbit varies, actually, and, of course, so does its distance from Earth. Naturally. Blame it on the polar vortex.

The Moon is moving away from the Earth by an average of 3.8 centimeters a year, the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment cheerfully tells us. That’s approximately an inch and a half, if you’re into inchy things, and it sounds like no big deal.

(I mean, if you were told Republicans were moving away from the rest of the country at a rate of 3.8 centimeters a year, you’d probably say, That’s all? It seems like leaps and bounds.)

But it is a  big deal. The Moon spinning away, I mean, not the Republicans. At least according to “Lunar Orbital Evolution: A Synthesis of Recent Results,” B.G. Bills and R.D. Ray (1999) Geophysical Research Letters 26 (19), it’s a big deal.

I don’t know what we can tell the Moon to get it to come back (getting girls to come back is not my forte, I’ve learned). Come back, Moon, come back, Moon, sounds too much like come back, Shane (he ain’t never coming back, Billie Holiday tells young Billy Crystal sitting on her lap in the cinema).

What’s the big deal with or without the Moon? you say. Well, the Moon causes the tides in the oceans, and if there are no tides hundreds of millions of years from now, how are people going to understand the meaning of the Irish legend of Cuchulain fighting the tide?

Meanwhile, in addition to the disappearing Moon, there apparently is no Presidents Day, so you didn’t survive it.

I did a bunch of research about President’s Day (don’t ask) and discovered that there never has — officially — been a Presidents’ Day. In 1968, Congress moved the observance of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February, rather than Feb. 22, so what we went through Monday, besides ducking the asteroid was Washington’s Birthday. (You don’t want to try goosing the asteroid, because we all remember what happened last year over Russia and that space rock.)

What interesting is that Lincoln’s birthday has never been a national holiday because of opposition by Southern members of Congress. Hmm.

And another interesting thing about Washington’s birthday (I know you can hardly wait): Washington never celebrated his birthday on Feb. 22, he celebrated it on Feb. 11. It goes back to Henry VIII and his split with the Vatican; when the Vatican and continental Europe in the 1500s jumped the calendar ahead by 11 days, Britain refused to go along. So for around 200 years, Britain and its colonies were 11 days behind Europe.

Sometime when Washington was a young man, Britain and the colonies jumped ahead 11 days to coincide with Europe, but Washington for the rest of his life still celebrated his birthday on Feb. 11.

It’s the little things that make life interesting.


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