Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Werewolf No Man Has Gone Before

David | Flickr

A brief survey of the viability of lycanthropes as a starfaring species.

It was a goofy throwaway line in a 2008-2013 BBC 3 series.
“If we lived on other planets, do you think the moon would still affect us?”
“If we lived on the moon, do you think we could be werewolves all the time?”

- Allison Larkin & Tom McNair, Being Human
Being Human had the kind of lighthearted pitch and at times astoundingly heart-wrenching premise anyone could expect from the channel that made an entire spinoff about Doctor Who’s immortal pansexual companion: A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost all try to live together in a flat in Bristol and play at being human. (Get it?)

But much as the comedic conceit of the show belies the emotional content its character can impart to the viewer over five season, it’s the silly throwaway lines that are stuffed with meaning. How does lycanthropy function? By what mechanism does the full moon transform a person into a werewolf and, extrapolating from that, could this create some boon or detriment to afflicted astronauts?

The Traditionalists

The classic interpretation of werewolves is that transformation occurs by light of the full moon, so let’s start there. Whether they turn back at dawn or cloudy skies, the instigating trigger for transformation of a werewolf is usually depicted as being cast in the light of the full moon itself.

As the moon is not a burning deathball of gas slowly roasting us like an inverted rotisserie, most people are aware that it is not a star. Its light is merely a reflection of sunlight properly angled at the Earth. The moon is in fact tidally locked, meaning its rotational rate and orbit around Earth are almost precisely equal, and the same hemisphere is always facing us. (The ‘dark’ side of the moon actually gets plenty of sunlight; we just never get to see it.)

Since werewolves aren’t running around in the day, it seems safe to say pure sunlight — any type of light, for that matter — isn’t a direct cause of lycanthropic transmogrification. And since the full face of the moon is always facing Earth, that cannot be a factor either. Account for the lack of transformations during daytime full moons, and we’re left with a singular conclusion:

The werewolf transformation is a result of an interaction between the sun’s light 
reflected by the moon, back at the Earth, at night.

There are two courses we can take from this point. Either the reaction is physiological or psychological, and psychological would be the easiest to test: Surprise a werewolf with what they think is the real full moon and see if they transform. If they do, it’s all psychosomatic hokum and frankly rather uninteresting, so let’s skip that.

If the light causes a physiological change, now we can get into some fun experiments. Do digital recordings save the proper wavelengths of light? What about analog film? Is a CRT TV too low-tech to cause a transformation? Could 4K Ultra-HD do the trick? The reflective moon equation is actually more complex than Light + Moon.

Light is emitted as both particle and wave by the sun, traveling about 92 million miles past the Earth to the moon, where it bounces off that body and (partially) back at Earth, where it travels through several layers of atmosphere down to ground level. Somewhere along that path, between sun and Earth, something happens to only the photons which are reflected off the lunar surface, and only in sufficient quantity at a full moon, and only during the night.

Since normal sunlight doesn’t create werewolves after passing through the atmosphere, it stands to reason that the key factor is the reflection. Earth’s moon is covered in regolith, the loose dust, rock, and grainy particles of, well, moon that’s broken off and melted and re-solidified and been kicked up my meteorites and rained back down on the lunar surface. Almost exclusively, this is composed of oxygen, iron, silicon, aluminum, calcium, magnesium, and titanium. About 1% comprises of manganese, sodium, potassium, and phosphorus. (Interestingly, around 40-45% of the moon is actually oxygen!)

All of these elements are common on Earth (we’re made of mostly the same stuff, after all), so it stands to reason that the specific reflectivity of these elements and their various chemical combinations in concert is what causes a werewolf to transform. But why only at night? The full moon can still be seen in the daytime, under the right circumstances, and we don’t see werewolves out and about at their office or the park. Clearly, there are mitigating factors.

The simplest explanation would be that the quantity of solar photons directly reaching the werewolf somehow counteracts the amount of lunar reflected photons experienced during a daylight moon sighting. This gives us our next big clue as to the mechanics of transformation:

A full moon at night is the only time werewolves can see enough reflected moonlight
without sunlight to block their transformation.

It’s nearly impossible to get a sunburn from moonlight. (“Moonburn” is only ever mentioned jokingly by dermatological professionals.) The reason for this is that — aside from being about 400,000 times less bright than the sun — reflected moonlight lacks much of the UV-B wavelength light that causes sunburns. UV-B is about 500 times less prevalent in sunlight than UV-A, and penetrates skin more deeply (so consider zinc-based sunscreen).

It is distinctly possible that the precise reflective spectrum of regolith, coupled with low-doses of UV-A light devoid of UV-B wavelengths is the precise trigger werewolves need to initiate their transformations. If that’s the case, Lycan-Americans should have no qualms about signing up to be astronauts. Outside of Earth’s atmosphere, it’s unlikely they would encounter the precise mix of visible and UV wavelengths responsible for such a specific biological event.

Back to the daytime argument, an excess of sunlight and a dearth of moonlight both cause the transformation to fizzle before it’s started. The need for highly attuned conditions is also bolstered by cloudy nights delaying transformation: clouds both obscure and diffuse /refract moonlight. Whether in the confines of a spaceship, station, or on the surface of the moon itself, there’s simply too much light — from both the sun and the moon — to create the conditions necessary for werewolves.

The New School

In Being Human, werewolves are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon. The Earth tugs on the moon far more than the converse, so every Earthrise a werewolf on the moon would probably transform into some kind of uberwolf.

Then again, they were a curse from the literal devil, so we’ll let the BBC address microgravity.