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Los Alamos scientist speaks on celestial topic at WTRSF orientation

JACKSON, Tenn.Oct. 18, 2002I see the moon and the moon sees me; God bless the moon and God bless me.

From love songs to children’s nursery rhymes, the moon, created on the fourth day of the world’s existence, has been an object long discussed by people who have seen its light from below. David J. Lawrence, a scientist from Los Alamos, NM, has studied the moon the majority of his career, and shared some of what he has learned at a recent luncheon for West Tennessee science teachers at Union University.

“The moon is the only heavenly body that people have been able to see in detail since the beginning of time,” Lawrence said, referring to the Bible which calls the moon a “faithful witness in the sky.” He pointed out that this phrase may not only metaphorically speak of the unchanging nature of the moon, but may be true scientifically in terms of recording the events of the solar system.

“Because of the moon’s atmosphere, materials from the various processes and reactions that happen in space can settle on the surface, and through analysis of these materials, scientists can describe the history of events in our solar system,” explained Lawrence. Having worked with NASA on several recent lunar missions, including the recent Lunar Prospector mission that discovered the possibility of water on the moon, Lawrence said that his fascination with lunar science began as a young boy growing up in the age of Apollo.

His presentation broke lunar exploration into six ages – the pre-space age, the beginning of the space age, the Apollo age, the years in the wilderness, the renaissance of lunar science, and the 21st century in lunar science. In the beginning, Lawrence said, the moon was such an object of fascination that it was often worshipped or revered by pagan cultures before it became an interest to scientists.

“These people saw the dark and light areas on the moon’s surface and believed that these were seas and land,” said Lawrence, “perhaps supporting life like the earth.”

In 1610, Galileo Galilei correctly hypothesized that the dark areas were most likely smooth plains and the light areas were rough and hilly. While scientists may have had ideas what these structures were, they did not know how they were formed or what they were formed from.

Several unmanned flights went to the moon in the 1950s and 60s, helping scientists hypothesize about the composition of the planet and taking pictures of previously unseen areas. The most important moon missions were those of the Apollo missions.

“These missions made many important discoveries,” said Lawrence, which included clues to the moon’s origins, the fact that there was no life or large bodies of water on the moon, and the actual composition of the rocks. The Apollo missions brought the moon to the public, and fascination with lunar science flourished.

After Apollo, most serious study dropped off, a time which the Los Alamos scientist called “the years in the wilderness.” In the last decade, however, lunar science has steadily picked up, specifically with the launch of two important missions – Clementine in 1994 and Lunar Prospector in 1998. Through Clementine, scientists were able to map the topography of the moon and discover that there was a possibility of water deposits at the moon’s poles, most likely from impact with comets. Lunar Prospector, the project that Lawrence was involved in, verified these water deposits and investigated materials found below the moon’s surface.

“I’m excited about a resurgence of interest in lunar science in the scientific community,” Lawrence told those in attendance. He reported that Europe, Japan, and the United States are all planning future projects to better understand this “faithful witness” that has fascinated humanity since life began.

By Jody Webster, Class of 2004


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10/18/02 - David J. Lawrence, a scientist from Los Alamos, NM, shared some of what he has learned about the moon at a recent luncheon for West Tennessee science teachers at Union.
10/18/02 - David J. Lawrence, a scientist from Los Alamos, NM, shared some of what he has learned about the moon at a recent luncheon for West Tennessee science teachers at Union. - Jim Veneman

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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