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The Continuing Mystery of the Moon Illusion [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The harvest moon is almost upon us—specifically, September 19. It’s the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, and it has deep significance in our cultural histories. Namely, it enabled our ancestral farmers to toil longer in the fields. (Today, electricity enables us to toil longer in the office—thanks, Tom Edison.)

One enduring belief is that the harvest moon is bigger and brighter than any other full moon. That myth is probably the result of the well-known illusion in which the moon looks bigger on the horizon than it does overhead.

Back when I was taking psych 101, my professor explained that the moon illusion was simply a function of having reference objects on the horizon. But then I saw this TED-Ed video by Andrew Vanden Heuvel. It turns out that the explanation from my college days really isn’t sufficient to explain the illusion. In fact, scientists really aren’t sure, and there is much debate. Check it out and see what you think.

Philip Yam About the Author: Philip Yam is the managing editor of ScientificAmerican.com. Follow on Twitter @philipyam.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 12:24 pm 09/16/2013

    Whatever it is, I doubt that it’s the result of any rational conclusion reached through conscious reason. I suspect that it is a product of vision ‘hardware’ related to distance & size evaluation and especially object recognition. It’s pretty important to recognize a lion, even when it looks small…

    Link to this
  2. 2. nnko60 3:11 am 09/19/2013

    But Harvest moon is big on the photos too.

    Link to this

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