Libration libretto

By Phil Plait | September 17, 2012 12:30 pm

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 Chin, 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.

Related Posts:

NASA Goddard rocks the Moon
Artwork OF DEATH
Music of the spheres
Mesmerizing visualization of a geomagnetic storm
All these worlds are yours…


Comments (13)

  1. VinceRN

    Operatic science lecture. Weird. And cool.

  2. billysixstring
  3. Chris A.

    [punctuation pedantry]No apostrophe in “lets” (third person singular, present tense of “to let”).[/punctuation pedantry]

  4. No apostrophe in “orbits”, either!

  5. GregoryInSeattle

    Matthew Schickele… any relation to Peter Schickele, aka PDQ Bach? Or Peter’s brother David, movie director and also an accomplished musician?

  6. So, libration is basically Moon-specific parallax?

    Anyway, I googled libration and one of the image results caught my eye. (ARTEMIS – the first Earth-Moon libration orbiter)

    Kidney-shaped orbits around virtual points in space? What the phooey is that? I tense up when I read “If a train leaves the station…” I can’t even imagine the complexity of calculations regarding the planning and maintenance of these orbits. If there’s any doubt about who’s smarter, brain surgeons or rocket scientists, ARTEMIS should dispel all doubt.

    I can’t help but think this whole experiment started with two nerds thinking it was impossible and in an effort to better understand the difficulties conquered gravity and inertia. Probably on a bet.

  7. Chris

    Now I know how I should teach my class. 70 minute impromptu opera three days a week. I wonder what the student evaluations will be ūüėÄ

  8. TheVirginian

    You might double-check the spelling of her name. Her website has it “Chinn,” unless my old, tired eyes were misreading it. (Would not be the first time.)

  9. Brian

    GregoryInSeattle: Yes indeed, Peter Schickele is Matthew’s father. Check out their podcast’s very cool episode on humor in music:

  10. Thomas Siefert

    In your face, Bizet….

  11. wright1

    Very nice. The cadence and phrasing of the lyrics reminds me of Virginia Lee Burton’s wonderful “Life Story”.

  12. Classic. Love it.

    Good music, singing and astronomy – always a good combination. :-)

  13. Matt B.

    It looks like most of the roll (as opposed to pitch and yaw) here is due to keeping the celestial equator horizontal while the moon travels on the ecliptic. The axis of the terminator does change by about 47 degrees (23.5 x 2). If the video kept the ecliptic horizontal I’d expect much less “steering wheel” action.


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