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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Libration libretto

By Phil Plait

Sticking with my theme of art and astronomy...

Back in March 2012, I posted a remarkable video from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (where I used to work) showing the motion of the Moon and how its appearance changes over the course of the year. The video went somewhat viral - probably because of the awesome music I added from Kevin Macleod - and I was pleased with it.

But then my friend, the skeptic and awesomely talented mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, asked me about libration, because she was working on a musical piece about it. She's done several scientific songs with her partner Matthew Schickele, so it's not as weird as it sounds. At least, not for them. Or me.

So we chatted back and forth a bit, and the result is this amazing piece of haunting and lovely music.


She sang this at the 2012 NECSS, and I wish I could've been there to hear it. Wow. My sister's a mezzo-soprano, so I have some familiarity here: Hai-Ting's voice is incredible. The piano is played by Erika Switzer.

I know the words to operatic music can be difficult to understand, so here are the lyrics:

This is animation. Each frame represents one hour; the whole, one year. The moon keeps the same face to us, but not exactly the same face. Because of the tilt and shape of its orbit we see the moon from slightly different angles. In a time lapse it looks like it's wobbling. This is libration. That rocking and tilting is real, it's called libration.

The moon's orbit is not a circle, but an ellipse. The speed varies, but the spin is constant. Together these geometries let us look East a little more, then West a little more. And the orbit's tilt let's us look South a little more, then North a little more. This is libration. The moon's libration.

How flipping cool is this? Hai-Ting and Matt write the Scopes Monkey Choir blog, which you should have in your feed reader.

I love how science inspires art. Love. I hope to see more and more of this kind of scientific art as time goes on. The more ways we can show people how amazing and wonderful the Universe is, the better.


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