“The Illusion of the Axial Rotation of the Moon”
By Nikola Tesla
“Famous Scientific Illusions.” Electrical Experimenter, February, 1919.
It is well known since the discovery of Galileo that the moon, in travelling thru space, always turns the same face towards the earth. This is explained by stating that while passing once around its mother-planet the lunar globe performs just one revolution on its axis. The spinning motion of a heavenly body must necessarily undergo modifications in the course of time, being either retarded by resistances internal or external, or accelerated owing to shrinkage and other causes. An unalterable rotational velocity thru all phases of planetary evolution is manifestly impossible. What wonder, then, that at this very instant of its long existence our satellite should revolve exactly so, and not faster or slower. But many astronomers have accepted as a physical fact that such rotation takes place. It does not, but only appears so; it is an illusion, a most surprising one, too.
Fig. 1. It Is Well Known That the Moon, M., Always Turns the Same Face Toward the Earth, E, as the Black Arrows Indicate. The Parallel Rays From the Sun Illuminate the Moon In Its Successive Orbital Positions as the Unshaded Semi-circles Indicate. Bearing This in Mind, Do You Believe That the Moon Rotates on Its Own Axis?
I will endeavor to make this clear by reference to Fig. 1, in which E represents the earth and M the moon. The movement thru space is such that the arrow, firmly attached to the latter, always occupies the position indicated with reference to the earth. If one imagines himself as looking down on the orbital plane and follows the motion he will become convinced that the moon does turn on its axis as it travels around. But in this very act the observer will have deceived himself. To make the delusion complete let him take a washer similarly marked and supporting it rotatably in the center, carry it around a stationary object, constantly keeping the arrow pointing towards the latter. Tho to his bodily vision the disk will revolve on its axis, such movement does not exist. He can dispel the illusion at once by holding the washer fixedly while going around. He will now readily see that the supposed axial rotation is only apparent, the impression being produced by successive changes of position in space.
Fig. 2. Tesla’s Conception of the Rotation of the Moon, M, Around the Earth, E; the Moon, In This Demonstration Hypothesis, Being Considered as Embedded In a Solid Mass, M,. If, As Commonly Believed, the Moon Rotates, This Would Be Equally True For a Portion of the Mass M?, and the Part Common to Both Bodies Would Turn Simultaneously In “Opposite” Directions.
But more convincing proofs can be given that the moon does not, and cannot revolve on its axis. With this object in view attention is called to Fig. 2, in which both the satellite, M, and earth, E, are shown embedded in a solid mass, M1, (indicated by stippling) and supposed to rotate so as to impact to the moon its normal translatory velocity. Evidently, if the lunar globe could rotate as commonly believed, this would be equally true of any other portion of mass M1, as the sphere M2, shown in dotted lines, and then the part common to both bodies would have to turn simultaneously in opposite directions. This can be experimentally illustrated in the manner suggested by using instead of one, two overlapping rotatable washers, as may be conveniently represented by circles M and M2, and carrying them around a center as E, so that the plain and dotted arrows are always pointing towards the same center. No further argument is needed to demonstrate that the two gyrations cannot co-exist or even be pictured in the imagination and reconciled in a purely abstract sense.
The truth is, the so-called “axial rotation” of the moon is a phenomenon deceptive alike to the eye and mind and devoid of physical meaning. It has nothing in common with real mass revolution characterized by effects positive and unmistakable. Volumes have been written on the subject and many erroneous arguments advanced in support of the notion. Thus, it is reasoned, that if the planet did not turn on its axis it would expose the whole surface to terrestrial view; as only one-half is visible, it must revolve. The first statement is true but the logic of the second is defective, for it admits of only one alternative. The conclusion is not justified as the same appearance can also be produced in another way. The moon does rotate, not on its own, but about an axis passing thru the center of the earth, the true and only one.
The unfailing test of the spinning of a mass is, however, the existence of energy of motion. The moon is not possest of such vis viva. If it were the case then a revolving body as M1 would contain mechanical energy other than that of which we have experimental evidence. Irrespective of this so exact a coincidence between the axial and orbital periods is, in itself, immensely improbable for this is not the permanent condition towards which the system is tending. Any axial rotation of a mass left to itself, retarded by forces external or internal, must cease. Even admitting its perfect control by tides the coincidence would still be miraculous. But when we remember that most of the satellites exhibit this peculiarity, the probability becomes infinitestimal.
Three theories have been advanced for the origin of the moon. According to the oldest suggested by the great German philosopher Kant, and developed by Laplace in his monumental treatise “Mécanique Céleste,” the planets have been thrown off from larger central masses by centrifugal force. Nearly forty years ago Prof. George H. Darwin in a masterful essay on tidal friction furnished mathematical proofs, deemed unrefutable, that the moon had separated from the earth. Recently this established theory has been attacked by Prof. T. J. J. See in a remarkable work on the “Evolution of the Stellar Systems,” in which he propounds the view that centrifugal force was altogether inadequate to bring about the separation and that all planets, including the moon, have come from the depths of space and have been captured. Still a third hypothesis of unknown origin exists which has been examined and commented upon by Prof. W. H. Pickering in “Popular Astronomy of 1907,” and according to which the moon was torn from the earth when the later was partially solidified, this accounting for the continents which might not have been formed otherwise.
Undoubtedly planets and satellites have originated in both ways and, in my opinion, it is not difficult to ascertain the character of their birth. The following conclusions can be safely drawn:
1. A heavenly body thrown off from a larger one cannot rotate on its axis. The mass, rendered fluid by the combined action of heat and pressure, upon the reduction of the latter immediately stiffens, being at the same time deformed by gravitational pull. The shape becomes permanent upon cooling and solidification and the smaller mass continues to move about the larger one as tho it were rigidly connected to it except for pendular swings or librations due to varying orbital velocity. Such motion precludes the possibility of axial rotation in the strictly physical sense. The moon has never spun around as is well demonstrated by the fact that the most precise measurements have failed to show any measurable flattening in form.
2. If a planetary body in its orbital movement turns the same side towards the central mass this is a positive proof that it has been separated from the latter and is a true satellite.
3. A planet revolving on its axis in its passage around another cannot have been thrown off from the same but must have been captured.