Of Gravity and Geese
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Of Gravity and Geese

ON 1 AUGUST 2008, attentive passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway passing through Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia had an opportunity to see one, perhaps even two, amazing things.

The first was a total solar eclipse. Its path of totality—the path of the moon's shadow—some 200 km wide, started in northern Canada, moved through central Russia, eastern Kazakhstan, western Mongolia and, finally, China. In Novosibirsk, starting in the late afternoon, the moon slowly slipped in front of the sun. At the moment of the sun's full obscuration, the sky was cloudless. Normally invisible wisps of the solar corona came into view during the brief period of totality, as did the planets Mercury and Venus.

But in those few moments of darkness, something else was taking place. On a small island in the River Ob, 65 km south of Novosibirsk, Ljuba Beliazkaia sat in a chair equipped with an anemometer and other meteorological instruments. Clad in protective gear akin to a hazmat suit, the professional parachutist was also tethered to 13 specially trained white geese arranged in a haphazard V-formation (Fig. 1).

The whole scenario—the geese, the parachutist, the instrumented chai—was orchestrated by a German installation artist named Agnes Meyer-Brandis. For years, Meyer-Brandis had been intrigued by the perceptions and realities around "gravitational anomalies." To investigate them, she founded an Institute for Art and Subjective Science in Berlin. Meyer-Brandis adopted the twin tools of Galilean gravitational investigation Apollo 15 astronauts took to the moon in 1971—a hammer and a feather [1]—as the institute's symbol. For years, Meyer-Brandis had probed and played with the real and imagined effects of gravity at meteor craters, junkyards of space debris and zero-gravity flights in the atmosphere. It was these forays into the boundary between falling and flying—what she sometimes termed "dropping studies"—that had brought her to this isolated islet in Siberia.

When the eclipse arrived, the early evening sky glowed with a pale and eerie orange-red light. The geese became very calm. Blackness descended. And, for just a moment, as Meyer-Brandis filmed, the large white birds seemed to vanish from sight. Had they flown? If so—where?

The origins for the performance Meyer-Brandis staged on the River Ob go back nearly four centuries. In 1638, an entry appeared in the Stationers' Register, the book maintained by London's publishing industry that recorded names of new books for nascent copyright purposes. It noted the publication of a work called The Man in the Moone. Subtitled "A Discourse of a Voyage Hither," it is regarded today as the first English-language work of science fiction. Its author was not, despite the frontispiece's claim, Domingo Gonsales—despite that the latter is nevertheless an important part of the book— but rather an English cleric who had died five years prior.

Francis Godwin was born 1562 in Hannington, a small village about 100 km west of London. Educated at Christ Church in Oxford, where he learned some mathematical astronomy, the moderate Calvinist became bishop of Llandaff and then Hereford, where he served until his death [2]. Sometime in the late 1620s, Godwin—lauded by one contemporary as "a good Man . . . skilful mathematician . . . and incomparable Historian"—began to compose The Man in the Moone. The book's incorporation of the era's natural philosophy has helped scholars precisely date it. Godwin included, for example, an interpretation of magnetism, based on William Gilbert's De Magnete (1600), as well as discoveries from the "new astronomy" as catalyzed by Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

The picaresque protagonist of Moone is Domingo Gon-sales, a diminutive Spanish merchant and nobleman. Godwin's choice was slightly daring, as his book's narrator came from a nation with which the kingdom of England was at war. As the story unfolds, Gonsales is forced to flee Spain after killing a man in a duel. After visiting the West Indies, Gon-sales is stranded on a remote but "blessed Isle of St. Hellens."

Fig. 1. The Moon Goose Experiment, Island of the Sacred Scarab, launchpad in River Ob, near Novosibirsk, Russia, 1 August 2008. (© Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG-Bildkunst) ©2017 ISAST doi:10.1162/LEON_a_01022
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Fig. 1.

The Moon Goose Experiment, Island of the Sacred Scarab, launchpad...