Paint the Moon:
A collaborative work of celestial art.

First attempt: Saturday, October 27, 2001
Second attempt: Saturday, November 24, 2001

The Goal:
To unite millions of people in an effort to 'paint' a red spot on the dark portion of a first-quarter moon using common laser pointers during a five-minute period this autumn.
Thanks to the thousands, perhaps millions, worldwide who participated in the two attempts.  I have been touched by the way the idea has resonated with people of many countries, cultures, and faiths.  In this crazy and too-often ugly world to have something which brings people together to share an artistic dream is a rare gift, and I thank all of you for making it possible.  It has been a phenomenal artistic success, even though we did not accomplish the technical aspect of the project.  Indeed, as many people said, that was almost beside the point of the deeper goals of the project.

If you participated in either of the attempts, and have not yet sent me a report, please do so.  Or if you have further thoughts on the project that you would like to share, I'd like to have them.  I plan on documenting the project with your comments.

Quite a number of people have written asking me to schedule other attempts, or make this an annual or even monthly event.  At this point I am not planning any such further attempts, and need to turn my attention to other projects.  But if someone else wants to take this on, please contact me in the next week or so.


The Idea:

Inexpensive, yet surprisingly powerful laser pointing devices have become ubiquitous in America.  Millions of people own such a device.  Laser light stays coherent over vast distances, the beams spreading very little.  In theory, even a single laser pointer could reach the Moon.  The original idea behind Paint the Moon was to organize millions of people in North America to shine their laser pointers on one area of the Moon at one time, in an artistic experiment to see if we can create a temporary visible field of color on our nearest celestial neighbor.

Will it work?

Well, the first attempt didn't, though some people reported seeing a red haze or halo effect.  If we get more people, more lasers, can it work?  I honestly don't know.  I'm a writer and an artist, not a scientist.  Most of the scientific opinion is that the small laser pointers themselves just don't have sufficient power or suitable optical characteristics.  I have no reason to doubt those opinions.

Then why do it?  We very well may not succeed, at least on the technical aspect of the project.  But let your imagination run for a moment, and consider how truly awesome a sight it would be if it did work, and the feeling you'd have in knowing that you helped to make it possible.  This is not unlike going to see a play:  you know you're not actually watching 'real' events take place, yet the shared experience is valid, perhaps inspirational, educational, or at least entertaining.  Even most of the scientists who write to tell me that the physics are not on our side say they plan on participating anyway, just because the idea is too cool not to.

And who knows.  I've heard from a number of people who think that the project could work if more powerful lasers are used in conjunction with the smaller ones.  And not 'Star Wars' types of lasers, but the ones commonly available to researchers, educators, even laser-light shows.  So maybe it is possible.

And I'm not the first crazy to want to shoot lasers at the moon.  NASA has been doing it for over 30 years, as part of a range-finding effort.  There's a link on my 'links' page if you want to check it out.

Why do it?

So-called 'environmental artists' such as Christo have explored large scale, temporary works that involve altering or enhancing the landscape with fabric and other materials.  The technical dream of this project is along the same lines:  to create a temporary dance of red laser light on the dark portion of the Moon which would be visible from Earth.

But just as important as this technical goal is the cooperative effort involved.  For it to have even the slightest chance of working, millions of people will have to take a few minutes out of an autumn night to join together and do one thing.  Millions more will be able to participate by watching the show.  Particularly with recent world events, this collective moment can have a special meaning:  for five minutes, we can all be focused on sharing this conceptual work of art.  We can all touch the Moon, if only with our laser pointers and our hearts.

The Details:

The date for the nextPaint the Moon attempt is November 24th, 2001.  In North America, the time is 11:00 P.M. EST (10:00 P.M. CST, 9:00 P.M. MST, 8:00 P.M. PST).  If you're outside this area, check this link for the global attempt times.  To be sure you're on the same time as everyone else, check your clock here.  Everyone who has a laser pointer and a clear view of the first-quarter Moon should turn on their pointers and aim them at the Moon, just behind (to the left, or East) of the terminator (the line where the sunlight stops).  The illustration at the top of this page shows approximately where you should aim.  Continue to shine your pointer at this spot for five minutes.  That's it.

This date and time was selected for a couple of reasons:  the Moon will be just beyond the first quarter, giving us a dark portion to attempt to illuminate; it will be visible for a long enough period of time that everyone on the continent can participate, and to thereby maximize our chance of being able to see any success at painting a red spot of light on it; it's a weekend, so people (particularly schoolchildren) can stay up a little late on the East Coast to attempt this.

A note about safety:

Please, people, let's use some common sense with those pointers.  They're pretty safe, but you can still ruin someone's night by shining it at their eyes.  And certainly, if you have aircraft flying in your area, do nothing to endanger the lives of the crew and passangers.  Under no circumstance should you shine your pointer at planes.  Laser pointers can distract a pilot, and contribute to a disaster.  If you're someplace where there are low-flying aircraft, try and be someplace else for the Paint the Moon event.

So . . .

Make sure the batteries for your laser pointer are fresh, tell your friends about this website, and hope for clear weather.  Let's see if we can Paint the Moon!

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized."    Daniel H. Burnham

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