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HomeNL-2017-12 Comedian

The Greatest Comedian of All Time
December 2017
by Harmon Everett

you’ve never heard of: Giovanni Battista Riccioli.

(click photos to enlarge)

When you are out on a weekend paddle or night paddle, and look up at a full Moon, you can see light and dark patches that suggest images to different people. Some see a “Man in the Moon”, some see a rabbit.

The Jesuit Astronomer, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, saw an opportunity to play a practical joke on all mankind, for the rest of eternity.

We live with his jokes, every night, and will for all time. Talk about your late night comedians.

He was using the newly developed telescope to look at the features of the Moon, and kept track of what he saw. He literally wrote the book that is responsible for naming most of the obvious features on the Moon, the dark patches, the light areas, and the main craters. It was called the Almagest Novum (New Almagest), in 1651, and in it he drew maps and named the different areas, and we have used those names ever since. Everybody has taken him so seriously, they’ve completely missed the fact that most of the names are jokes.

Let’s start with the big dark circle at the upper right. Of all the big dark areas on the Moon, it is almost a perfect circle. Giovanni named it: “Sea of Crises.” In Latin: “Mare Crisium.”

What is so funny about that? Well, the dark areas around it are named, going in order counter-clockwise, the “Sea of Serenity”, the “Sea of Tranquility”, the “Sea of Nectar” (which I assume is a euphemism for alcohol), and the “Sea of Fertility”.

Go ahead. Try sailing through the Sea of Serenity, the Sea of Tranquility, the Sea of Alcohol, and the Sea of Fertility, and I’m pretty sure that now, as in the 17th century, you will end up in the Sea of Crises! Wink, Wink. He may have been a Franciscan Monk, but he wasn’t dead. At least, not then.

To show that he was making a joke, he then moved directly opposite the Sea of Crises, and named the dark circle on the opposite side of the Moon, The Sea of Humor, Mare Humorum. Well, in Latin it means The Sea of Moisture, but he was making a Latin/English pun.

I guess you had to be there.

He named the other dark blotches on that side of the Moon in a more rational fashion. If you had a Sea of Moisture, you would get a Sea of Clouds, and a Sea of Vapors, and a Sea of Rain, and a veritable Ocean of Storms, and at the North Pole of the Moon, thinking that the North Pole would be cold, he named that dark blotch, the Sea of Cold (Mare Frigoris). This would lead most of us to suspect he had gone back to being the respectable Jesuit Academic that we would have expected. But then he chose two dark blotches in the middle of the face of the “Man in the Moon” and named them “Sinuses”. Sinus Aestuum and Sinus Medii. He couldn’t have been much more obvious if he had drawn a big circle in the middle of the Moon and named it “The NOSE” or “The NOSTRILS.” My, what big sinuses you have! Mr. Man-in-the-Moon.

(click to enlarge)

He named many of the craters on the Moon for other astronomers. At the time, the “Copernican” theory that the Earth orbited the Sun was still in doubt, and the Ptolemaic Earth Centric Theory was still officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, so he could not publicly support the Copernican theory. He did, however, name most of the craters in the Ocean of Storms, Including the large bright crater, Copernicus, for astronomers who supported the Copernican Sun-centered theory, and included a crater he named after himself. When someone pointed out that this might be viewed as tacit approval of the Copernican theory, he just said he had put all the Copernicans in stormy waters.

A man of deft wit, indeed. I still laugh at his jokes. I would have liked to have known him.

The author, Harmon Everett