* 26 January 2011 by Hazel Muir
* Magazine issue 2796. Subscribe and save
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Or what if our home planet had two moons, or none, or was a moon itself?
IN THE quirky H. G. Wells tale The Man Who Could Work Miracles, a character called George Fotheringay discovers that he has supernatural powers. Egged on by the local vicar, Fotheringay uses his gift to miraculously improve his village by night, mending buildings and reforming drunks. Then he realises there is a way to buy more time for good deeds before sunrise: simply order the Earth to stop spinning.
The moment Fotheringay gives the command, all hell breaks loose. "When Mr Fotheringay had arrested the rotation of the solid globe, he had made no stipulation concerning the trifling movables upon its surface," Wells wrote. "Every human being, every living creature, every house and every tree - all the world as we know it - had been so jerked and smashed and utterly destroyed."
Wells loved to play God with the planets in his fiction, but such fantasies are good for more than entertainment. Implausible scenarios of the sort Wells cooked up are worth exploring because they give clarity to what makes the real world tick, says Neil Comins, an astrophysicist at the University of Maine in Orono. In his new book What if the Earth Had Two Moons? Comins gives the Earth some other-worldly makeovers to see how different our environment could have been. "Thinking through what could happen or might have happened gives a much better perspective on how things actually are," he says.
So what strange scenarios would drastically alter our world, and what would be the upshot?
Toying with the moon is a good place to start. The moon has had an enormous influence on our planet, not least in the cataclysmic events that led to its formation. The consensus is that a Mars-sized body, often called Theia, slammed into the Earth around 4.5 billion... [continues]
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