January 17, 2018

Discovering the Final Frontier: The Seventeenth-Century Encounter with the Lunar Environment

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By Michael Rawson

Environmental historians rarely consider extraterrestrial environments in their meditations on the natural world. But paying more attention to places beyond the earth would expand the environmental contexts in which we write our histories and illuminate past events that still await an environmental lens, such as seventeenth-century Europe’s imaginative encounter with the moon. Galileo’s discovery in 1609 that the moon has earthlike features sparked an overlooked revolution in thought that saw humanity’s environmental imagination expand outward from the confines of earth

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into outer space. Some of Europe’s greatest thinkers began puzzling out the kind of natural environment that the moon might have. In the process, they constructed a new environmental imaginary containing many of the working assumptions about extraterrestrial nature that still guide space exploration today. The full significance of historical moments like this one can only come to light if environmental historians turn their attention to the stars.

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