Once you’ve convinced yourself the Earth’s a spinning sphere of diameter about 8000 miles (13000 km), and you’ve estimated the Moon’s size and distance (diameter about 1/4 Earth’s, and distance about 30 times Earth’s diameter), it’s easy to convince yourself the Sun’s bigger than the Earth, and much further than the Moon. It just takes a couple of triangles, and a bit of Moon-gazing.
Since that’s all there is to it, you can guess that the ancient Greek astronomers, masters of geometry, already knew the Sun’s the larger of the two. That said, they never did quite figure out how big and far the Sun actually is; we need modern methods for that.
It’s Just a Phase
The Moon goes through a monthly cycle of phases, lasting about 291/2 Earth days, in which the part that glows brightly with reflected sunlight grows and shrinks, from crescent to full and back again. The phases arise because there are two simple ways of dividing the Moon in half:
- At any moment, the half of the Moon that faces Earth — let’s call it the near half of the Moon — is the only half that we can potentially see. (We’d only be able to see the far half, facing away from Earth, if the Moon were transparent, or a big mirror was sitting beyond the Moon.)
- At any moment, the half of the Moon that faces the Sun is brightly lit — let’s call it the lit half. The other half is dark, and its presence can only be detected by the fact that it can block stars that it moves in front of, and through a very dim glow in which it reflects sunlight that first reflected from the Earth (called “Earthshine.”)
The phases arise because the lit half and the near half aren’t the same, and the relationship between them changes from night to night. See the diagram below. When the Moon is more or less between the Sun and the Earth (it rarely passes exactly between, because its orbit is tilted by a few degrees out of the plane of the drawing below) then the Moon’s lit half is its far half, and the near half is unlit. We call this dark view of the Moon the “New Moon” because it is traditionally viewed as the start of the Moon’s monthly cycle.
When the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun (but again, rarely eclipsed by Earth’s shadow because of its tilted orbit), then its near side is its lit side, and that creates the “Full Moon”, a complete white disk in the sky.
At any other time, the near side of the Moon is partly lit and partly unlit. When the line between the Moon and Earth is perpendicular to the Earth-Sun line, then the lit side and unlit side slice the near side in half, and the Moon appears as a half-disk cut down the middle.
When I was a child, I wondered why half this half-lit phase of the Moon, midway between New Moon (invisible) and Full Moon (the bright full disk), was called “First Quarter”, when in fact the Moon at that time is half lit. Why not “First Half?” Two weeks later, the other half of the near-side of the Moon is lit, and why is that called “Third Quarter” and not, say, “Other Half”?
This turns out to have been an excellent question. The fact that a Half Moon is also a First Quarter Moon tells us that the Sun is large and far away!