Moon Made Of Swiss Cheese Assignment
n the February 1915 edition of The Bank Man, a journal published by the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Bank Clerks, one G. G. Florine illustrates the typical contours of a formal debate. To make his point, he calls on an example argument — and not just any argument, as it happens, but a categorically idle and spurious one, undertaken when "there were no more worlds to discuss": the question of whether or not the moon is made of cheese. Here's how Florine renders such "verbal combat":
Question: Resolved—That the moon is made of cheese.
Affirmative: Why isn't the moon made of cheese? It is round like a cheese. It is yellow like a cheese. Therefore, the moon is a cheese.
Negative: You have heard my worthy opponent say that the moon is made of cheese because it is round and yellow. Now, gentlemen, I submit that roundness and yellowness do not constitute the distinctive qualities by which a cheese is distinguished from that which is not a cheese. For example, my noble antagonist's head is round, and on some mornings his face has been tinged with yellow when economic conditions have imbued him with insomnia; but no one would seriously entertain the idea that my esteemed adversary in this argument is a cheese, although I admit that he comes nearer to being one that the moon does.
While the moon's largely silicate mineral composition wouldn't be confirmed for another half-century or so, by 1915 the cheese theory could already be easily dismissed as balderdash. It is a preposterous conceit by design, but one so ingrained in Western thought that it typically serves — then and now — as a prime example of unscientific thought.
It's unlikely that many people of sound academic mind ever seriously bought into the premise of a dairy satellite. It's easy to forget, here in the jaded 21st century, that premodern generations could reach beyond fanciful folklore for explanations of the observable universe. In this case, the popular myth was never a story believed so much as one that was indulged — and even that much was done at one's peril.
Consider, for example, the appearance of moon cheese in English Renaissance poet and playwright John Heywood's sixteenth century collection of proverbs. He notes that the collected sayings — including present-day standbys like "look before you leap," "many hands make light work," and "I know on which side my bread is buttered" — far predated his own life, many with mysterious roots in the Middle Ages. "Our common plaine pithie Proverbs olde," he calls them. The couplet that concerns us: Ye set circumquaques to make me beleue / Or thinke, that the moone is made of gréene chéese.
You'd be hard-pressed to figure a fancier way of saying "cut the bullshit"; the comparatively gritty idiomatic descendant might be "I've got a bridge to sell you." But what Heywood and others of his era saw as the patent absurdity of a curdled lunar landscape (a presumably related family of fables from that time describes animals who mistake the moon's reflection on water for a floating piece of food, often cheese) is perhaps the exact thing that allows the fantasy to endure. At the very least, that sort of capricious speculation holds an enduring appeal for the naïve: The news website Live Science points to a 1902 American Journal of Psychology survey of young children who widely subscribed to this cherished quack astronomy, though a few claimed the moon was "rags, God, yellow paper," or "dead people who join hands in a circle of light."
It's no accident that we attach our strangest notions to the moon, for so long an impenetrable and unreachable beacon. It's a remote, fluctuating body that lends itself to credulity and fairy tales as readily as to skepticism; it's nature's familiar and constant paradox.
In 1835, some three hundred years after Heywood published his sarcastic proverb, New York newspaper The Sun ran a series of wholly fictional articles that detailed alleged discoveries of the moon's alien ecosystems and the bat-winged humanoids that dwelled there, sensational visions owed to a new, "immense," and likewise fabricated telescope — all misleadingly attributed to the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel by author "Dr. Andrew Grant," who had never existed. With the advent of modern science, our capacity for invention only increased. And despite The Sun's dodgy editorial ethics, the "Great Moon Hoax" enhanced the papers circulation (though by what amount remains a matter of dispute).
People always seem willing to believe, or disbelieve, what they're told about the moon. Take today's moon landing deniers, a vast array of paranoiacs who contend that, for one reason or another, NASA's manned missions to our only natural satellite were faked. The conspiracies become remarkably convoluted: French author Philippe Lheureux has written about his belief that the U.S. did put men on the moon, but maintains that the government circulated bogus images of the landing to prevent other nations from obtaining valuable engineering intelligence.
Compared to this kind of wild conjecture, a cheese moon suddenly seems rather quaint, which is no doubt why it remains a fixture in children's entertainment. Like a baby-delivering stork or the Tooth Fairy, it simplifies or stabilizes reality for those who can't yet quite grasp its finer points. And it is there, in the bedtime stories and cartoons, that we begin to investigate a consequent question about the moon as a refined dairy product: If we accept that the moon is made of cheese, the next thing to wonder is precisely what kind of cheese that may be.
The Oscar-nominated stop-action short A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit has fun with this imponderable, its snacky human protagonist tasting a slice of the lunar ground and carefully gauging its taste. "Wensleydale?" he asks. "Stilton," he guesses. His sharp-nosed canine companion disagrees with both assessments, and, indeed, it's difficult to imagine such a lunar quantity of cheese produced in either of the old-world English locales Wallace suggests. "It's like no cheese I've ever tasted," he at last concludes, at the moment where an American character might have broadly quipped, "It's out of this world!"
A Yahoo! Answers thread on the topic, meanwhile, traffics mainly in puns. "Moonzzarella" proved the winning joke, followed closely by "famunda," a crude, slangy reference to a peculiar result of poor hygiene in males. Edam, brie, and Monterey Jack drew support, as did American and cheddar, all of them justifiably beating out "its not cheese it lava" (sic., of course) in subsequent voting. Swiss cheese is another perennial speculation, its distinctive air bubbles mapping nicely onto the moon's cratered landscape. But on the whole, dominant conjectural preferences would appear to result from regional affiliations or individual palates rather than pure reasoning.
Then there's Heywood's "gréene" cheese, which is to say cheese that is unripe or insufficiently aged—green in newness, not color. It's this interpretation that gives us our richest moon-cheese associations, spiraling out into obsession and madness. "They will never cease to regard me as a lunatic," the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln is supposed to have said of her former friends to her sister Elizabeth in 1876, perhaps inadvertently evoking the ancient hypothesis that the moon may affect one's sanity. "I feel it in their soothing manner. If I should say the moon is made of green cheese they would heartily and smilingly agree with me." Talk about strange new frontiers.
Green brings us toward envy, too, as in the Scottish phrase "You could'nae see green cheese but yer een wid reel" — you'll want what you see someone else getting. Who could have lived through the Space Race without seeing narrative parallels traced in the Sea of Tranquility? By virtue of its fullness and brightness and tantalizing distance, the moon has ever existed as an object of value, even when we cannot deduce what form its bounty might take. Until then, the planet's closest neighbor will always seem an ambiguous orb in the sky — or, if you like, a ball of cheese that has yet to cultivate, a delicacy that requires and rewards patience.
And what does cheese mean to this planet, exactly? Cheese is, in the end, a luxury and a privilege; it's money, influence, decadence, addiction. There's a reason 30 Rock's Liz Lemon sang soulfully about her "night cheese," and that reason may be casein, a potentially addicting protein that "breaks apart during digestion to release a whole host of opiates called casomorphins," as Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine put it. When we want a dish to be less healthy and more savory, we add cheese.
Nevertheless, cheese occupies a realm between extremes. Just as Aristotle considered the moon a boundary separating the mutable planes of existence and the rarefied aether beyond, cheese presents a faultline for vegetarian and vegan diets. Both the moon and cheese are the sort of oddity or exception that we tend to get hung up on, as a surreal clip of QVC host Shawn Killinger and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi sincerely bickering over whether the moon is a planet or star readily attests.
The similarities go on. Cheese, like the moon, is thought to sway the tides of the subconscious. The following comes from a 2005 NPR interview with Nigel White, then secretary of the British Cheese Board, which had decided to study effect of cheese on dreams, inspired by the historical notion that cheese before bed invites nightmares. Volunteers for the project were given two-thirds of an ounce of cheese before bed, and journals in which to record the visions that danced in their heads thereafter:
Mr. WHITE: And they did this for a week, and we found that about three-quarters of everybody said that they slept well every night, and most of those people could remember the dreams that they had. So that was pretty encouraging. And the science of that, we think, is that there is an essential amino acid in milk called tryptophan. Now tryptophan is known to be something which is helpful in normalizing sleep and reducing stress levels. That seemed to make sense to us. What was really wacky was that the type of cheese that people were eating seemed to give them different types of dreams.
BLOCK: Oh, and this would be consistent? In other words, the cheese was the determinative factor here?
Mr. WHITE: Well, as far as we can tell. What we found was that those who were eating blue cheese, Blue Stilton, were coming up with some quite vivid dreams that I'm sure the sleep psychologists would have a field day with in terms of interpreting.
BLOCK: Can you share some with us, or are you bound by science cheese privileges?
Mr. WHITE: Yeah, I mean, one of the volunteers said that she dreamed of a vegetarian crocodile who was upset because he couldn't eat children. And another one dreamed that they had soldiers fighting with each other with kittens instead of guns.
Cheddar was associated with celebrity dreams, Red Leicester with the past and nostalgia, Lancashire with work and officialdom. Cheshire cheese was professed to be a ticket to serene and dreamless slumber. Each proved a gateway to some specific dimension of mind, one small step—or perhaps giant leap—forward. No surprise that we've chosen to recognize our rocky satellite as made of our preferred variety of hors d'oeuvre.
Harmonic as this astro-culinary conflation is to our nocturnal selves, what's finally remarkable about the idea of the moon as cheese is that at this point, it's woven into our narrative DNA, a cliche, a punchline, a known reference to absurdity. We can hardly resist its winking, cosmic tomfoolery. It's inspired nonsense that will doubtless outlast the next thousand crackpot lunar delusions — the contention that the moon is actually hollow, for example, or that it's a massive spacecraft "parked in orbit." The moon being made of cheese bridges us back to the beginnings of enlightenment—no matter what the sell-by date may suggest.
Miles Klee is an editor at the Internet culture site the Daily Dot, as well as author of the novel Ivyland and the story collection True False.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Photo-illustration: Shutterstock/Helen Rosner
"The Moon is made of green cheese" is a statement referring to a fanciful belief that the Moon is composed of cheese. In its original formulation as a proverb and metaphor for credulity with roots in fable, this refers to the perception of a simpleton who sees a reflection of the Moon in water and mistakes it for a round cheese wheel. It is widespread as a folkloric motif among many of the world's cultures, and the notion has also found its way into children's folklore and modern popular culture.
The phrase "green cheese" in this proverb simply refers to a young cheese (sometimes "cream cheese" is used), though modern people may interpret the color reference literally.
There was never an actual historical popular belief that the Moon is made of green cheese (cf., the myth of the Flat Earth).[A] It was typically used as an example of extreme credulity, a meaning that was clear and commonly understood as early as 1638.
There exists a family of stories in comparative mythology in diverse countries that concern a simpleton who sees a reflection of the Moon and mistakes it for a round cheese:
... the Servian tale where the fox leads the wolf to believe the moon reflection in the water is a cheese and the wolf bursts in the attempt to drink up the water to get at the cheese; the Zulu tale of the hyena that drops the bone to go after the moon reflection in the water; the Gascon tale of the peasant watering his ass on a moonlight night. A cloud obscures the moon, and the peasant, thinking the ass has drunk the moon, kills the beast to recover the moon; the Turkish tale of the Khoja Nasru-'d-Din who thinks the moon has fallen into the well and gets a rope and chain with which to pull it out. In his efforts the rope breaks, and he falls back, but seeing the moon in the sky, praises Allah that the moon is safe; the Scotch tale of the wolf fishing with his tail for the moon reflection;
— G. H. McKnight
The Wolf and the Fox story type
This folkloric motif is first recorded in literature during the High Middle Ages by the French rabbi Rashi with a Rabbinic parable in his commentary weaving together three Biblical quotations given in the main text (including one on "sour grapes") into a reconstruction of some of the Talmudic Rabbi Meir's supposed three hundred fox fables ("משלות שועלים", in later works "משלי שועלים"), in the tractate Sanhedrin:
A fox once craftily induced a wolf to go and join the Jews in their Sabbath preparations and share in their festivities. On his appearing in their midst the Jews fell upon him with sticks and beat him. He therefore came back determined to kill the fox. But the latter pleaded: 'It is no fault of mine that you were beaten, but they have a grudge against your father who once helped them in preparing their banquet and then consumed all the choice bits.' 'And was I beaten for the wrong done by my father?' cried the indignant wolf. 'Yes,' replied the fox, 'the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge. However,' he continued, 'come with me and I will supply you with abundant food. He led him to a well which had a beam across it from either end of which hung a rope with a bucket attached. The fox entered the upper bucket and descended into the well whilst the lower one was drawn up. 'Where are you going?' asked the wolf. The fox, pointing to the cheese-like reflection of the moon, replied: 'Here is plenty of meat and cheese; get into the other bucket and come down at once.' The wolf did so, and as he descended, the fox was drawn up. 'And how am I to get out?' demanded the wolf. 'Ah' said the fox 'the righteous is delivered out of trouble and the wicked cometh in his stead. Is it not written, Just balances, just weights'?
Rashi as the first literary reference may reflect the well-known beast fable tradition of French folklore or a more obscure such tradition in Jewish folklore (see also the tradition in Berechiah ha-Nakdan); the near-contemporary Iraqi rabbi Hai Gaon also reconstructed this Rabbi Meir tale, sharing some elements of Rashi's story, but with a lion caught in a trapping pit rather than a wolf in a well — however, Rashi may have actively "adapted contemporary [French] folklore to the [T]almudic passage", as was homiletically practiced in different Jewish communities. Though the tale itself is probably of non-Jewish European origin, Rashi's form and elements are likely closer to the original in oral folklore than the somewhat later variation recorded featuring Reynard. Rashi's version already includes the fox, the wolf, the well and the Moon that are seen in later versions. Petrus Alphonsi, a Spanish Jewish convert to Christianity, popularized this tale in Europe in his collection Disciplina Clericalis.
The variation featuring Reynard the Fox appeared soon after Petrus Alphonsi in the French classic Le Roman de Renart (as "Renart et Ysengrin dans le puits" in Branch IV); the Moon/cheese element is absent (it is replaced by a promise of Paradise at the bottom of the well), but such a version is alluded to in another part of the collection. This was the first Reynard tale to be adapted into English (as the Middle English "þe Vox and þe Wolf"), preceding Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale" and the much later work of William Caxton. Later still, the Middle Scots The Fox, the Wolf and the Husbandman does include the Moon/cheese element. La Fontaine includes the story in the French classic compilation Fables ("Le Loup et le Renard" in Book XI). The German tale of The Wolf and the Fox in Grimm replaces the well with a well-stocked cellar, where a newly satiated wolf is trapped and subject to the farmer's revenge, being now too overstuffed to escape through the exit.
One of the facets of this morphology is grouped as "The Wolf Dives into the Water for Reflected Cheese" (Type 34) of the Aarne–Thompson classification of folktales, where the Moon's reflection is mistaken for cheese, in the section devoted to tales of The Clever Fox. It can also be grouped as "The Moon in the Well" (Type 1335A), in the section devoted to Stories about a Fool, referring to stories where the simpleton believes the Moon itself is a tangible object in the water.
The use of the words "The moon is made of green cheese" in a passive sentence creates a dilemma of syntax, depending upon whether it is considered to be a "phrase" and its larger context.
"The Moon is made of green cheese" was one of the most popular proverbs in 16th and 17th-century English literature, and it was also in use after this time. It likely originated in this formulation in 1546, when The Proverbs of John Heywood claimed "the moon is made of a greene cheese."[B] A common variation at that time was "to make one believe the Moon is made of green cheese" (i.e., to hoax).
In French, there is the proverb "Il veut prendre la lune avec les dents" ("He wants to take the moon with his teeth"), alluded to in Rabelais.
The characterization is also common in stories of gothamites, including the Moonrakers of Wiltshire, who were said to have taken advantage of this trope, and the assumption of their own naivete, to hide their smuggling activities from government officials.
Childlore and popular culture
A 1902 survey of childlore by psychologist G. Stanley Hall in the United States found that though most young children were unsure of the Moon's composition, that it was made of cheese was the single most common explanation:
Careful inquiry and reminiscence concerning the substance of the moon show that eighteen children [of 423], averaging five years, thought it made of cheese. Sometime the mice eat it horseshoe-shaped, or that it could be fed by throwing cheese up so clouds could catch it; or it was green because the man in the moon fed on green grass; its spots were mould; it was really green but looked yellow, because wrapped in yellow cheese cloth; it was cheese mixed with wax or with melted lava, which might be edible; there were many rats, mice and skippers there; it grew big from a starry speck of light by eating cheese.
Before that time, and since, the idea of the Moon actually being made of cheese has appeared as a humorous conceit in much of children's popular culture with astronomical themes (cf. the Man in the Moon), and in adult references to it.
- The phrase is the title of a book, and appears on at least 21 of its 306 pages.
- A Trip to the Moon was an early Coney Island dark ride where, after their "trip" to the Moon's surface and its cities, samples of green cheese were given out to visitors.
- In John Maynard Keynes's principal work "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" one finds in Chapter XVII a section "Unemployment develops, that is to say, because people want the moon; [..] There is no remedy but to persuade the public that green cheese is practically the same thing and to have a green cheese factory (i.e. a central bank) under public control."
- The Milky Way is an Academy Award-winning animated cartoon short subject. As "three little kittens who lost their mittens" explore a dreamland, space is made up entirely of dairy products (e.g. the Milky Way is made of milk and the Moon is made of cheese).
- At the end of the 1967 Tom and Jerry short, O-Solar Meow, Jerry is blasted to the Moon, where he is seen stuffing himself with its large quantities of cheese.
- DuckTales and DuckTales: Remastered by Capcom has Scrooge obtain a chunk of the "Green Cheese of Longevity" from the Moon. Fenton also briefly mentions the fable.
- In Nick Park's short animated film A Grand Day Out, Wallace and Gromit build a lunar rocket to go on a cheese-centered holiday.
- Wallace: "Everybody knows the moon's made of cheese."
- In the short tale by Kenneth Lans, "A 'Rounders' Story about the 'Green Cheese' Moon", the story revolves around the green cheese made by giant spiders which is transported to the moon by leaf-cutting ants.
- The myth has spawned an apocryphal recipe for the preparation of "Moon cheese" in MouseHunt.
- In the children's educational show, The Electric Company, there is a sketch in which Fargo North is an astronaut in space who receives orders to proceed to the Moon. He protests that is impossible since the Moon is made of green cheese and his exasperated partner reminds him that he was told otherwise in training. In another skit, a character forcefully states that the moon is not made of green cheese, but of cream cheese.
Scientific humor and epistemology
- British television Apollo 11 coverage had interludes entitled "But What If It's Made of Cheese."
- On April 1, 2002, NASA "proved" that the moon was made of green cheese with an expiration (or "sell by") date[C] using doctored pictures purportedly from the Hubble telescope.
- At the Science Writers' conference, theoretical physicistSean M. Carroll explained why there was no need to "sample the moon to know it's not made of cheese." He said the hypothesis is "absurd", failing against our knowledge of the universe and, "This is not a proof, there is no metaphysical proof, like you can proof a statement in logic or math that the moon is not made of green cheese. But science nevertheless passes judgments on claims based on how well they fit in with the rest of our theoretical understanding."[D] Notwithstanding this uncontrovertible argument, the harmonic signature of moon rock—the seismic velocity at which shockwaves travel—is said to be closer to cheese than to any rock on earth.
- Early versions of Google Moon used a Swiss cheese pattern for the closest zoom levels before high-resolution images became available.
- Dennis Lindley used the myth to help explain the necessity of Cromwell's rule in Bayesian probability: "In other words, if a decision-maker thinks something cannot be true and interprets this to mean it has zero probability, he will never be influenced by any data, which is surely absurd. So leave a little probability for the moon being made of green cheese; it can be as small as 1 in a million, but have it there since otherwise an army of astronauts returning with samples of the said cheese will leave you unmoved."
- The hypothesis that "the Moon is made of green cheese" is said to be testable by cluster analysis.
- ^Merriam-Webster Green cheese definition.
- ^Wilkins, John (1638). New World Book. 1.
- ^ abcMcKnight, George Harley (1908). "The Middle English Vox and Wolf". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. XXIII: 497–509. doi:10.2307/456797.
- ^"Sanhedrin 38b" (in Hebrew) (Ryzman ed.). Hebrew Books. Retrieved 6 October 2015.
"Sanhedrin 39a" (in Hebrew) (Ryzman ed.). Hebrew Books. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
- ^"Soncino translation of Sanhedrin"(PDF). Retrieved 7 October 2015.
- ^ Works related to Disciplina Clericalis/XVIII. The Plowman with His Oxen and the Wolf and the Fox at Wikisource
- ^Anderson 2006, pp. 206.
- ^Slaughter, J. W. (1902). "The Moon in Childhood and Folklore". American Journal of Psychology. XIII: 294–318. doi:10.2307/1412741.
- ^ abcde"Cheesy Moon". TV Tropes. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
- ^"A Grand Day Out". IMDB. 1989.
- ^"Moon cheese recipe". The Mouse Hunt Guide. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
- ^"BBC One London, 20 July 1969 22.00: Omnibus". Radio Times. BBC (2384): 12. 17 July 1969.
- ^Nemiroff, R.; Bonnell, J., eds. (1 April 2002). "Hubble Resolves Expiration Date For Green Cheese Moon". Astronomy Picture of the Day. NASA. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
- ^Mirsky, Steve (19 October 2011). "Moon Not Made of Cheese, Physicist Explains". Flagstaff, Arizona: Scientific American. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
- ^Sanders, Ian (1996–2005). "Is the moon made of green cheese". Retrieved 19 June 2013.
- ^"Google Confirms Moon Made of Cheese". 6 October 2011. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
- ^"Tomme des Pyrénées cheese". Cookipedia (UK). Retrieved 12 June 2012.
- Anderson, Stephen R. (May 30, 2006). Doctor Dolittle's Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 206. ISBN 9780300115253.
- Apperson, George Latimer; Manser, M. (September 2003). Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs. Wordsworth Editions. p. 392. ISBN 1-84022-311-1.
- Comstock, Sarah (1929). The moon is made of green cheese. Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc. p. front cover.
- Lindley, Dennis (1991). Making Decisions (2nd ed.). Wiley. p. 104. ISBN 0-471-90808-8.
- Romesburg, Charles (April 28, 2004). Cluster Analysis for Researchers. North Carolina: Lulu.com. p. 46. ISBN 9781411606173.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1991), Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and modern historians, New York: Praeger, ISBN 0-275-95904-X
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1993), "The Flat Error: The Modern Distortion of Medieval Geography", Mediaevalia, 15: 337–353
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1997), "The Myth of the Flat Earth", Studies in the History of Science, American Scientific Affiliation, retrieved 2007-07-14
- Teitelbaum, Eli Yassif ; translated from Hebrew by Jacqueline S. (1999). The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 260–263. ISBN 9780253002624.