Why Does the Moon Appear Larger on the Horizon?

Posted on May 16, 2010  Comments (0)

Why does the Moon look so huge on the horizon?

If you’ve ever seen the Moon rising over the horizon, looking so fat and looming that you felt like you could fall right into it, then you’ve been a victim of the famous Moon Illusion. And it is an illusion, a pervasive and persuasive one.

When the Moon is on the horizon, your brain thinks it’s far away, much farther than when it’s overhead. So the Ponzo Illusion kicks in: your brain sees the Moon as being huge, and it looks like you could fall into it. The Illusion works for the Sun, too. In fact, years ago I saw Orion rising over a parking lot, and it looked like it was spread across half the sky. It’s an incredibly powerful illusion.

Oddly enough, when it’s on the horizon, the Moon actually is farther away than when it’s overhead. Not by much, really, just a few thousand kilometers (compared to the Moon’s overall distance of about 400,000 kilometers).

So the Moon Illusion is just that. It’s not the air acting like a lens, or foreground objects making it look big by comparison. It’s just the way we see the shape of the sky together with the well-known Ponzo Illusion.
Science taking something we perceive as real, breaking it down, and showing it to be an interesting but decidedly unreal illusion? Well, that’s what science does! It helps us not only understand the world better, but it also makes the world cooler, too.

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