Key Concepts
Perception, optical illusions

Introduction

Have you ever noticed how the moon appears bigger at the horizon, just as it is rising over the treetops, than it does later in the evening when it is overhead?  Of course, the size of the moon does not change, but our perception of its size changes based on where it is in the sky.  In this activity, you’ll investigate Emmert’s law, which helps explain the full moon illusion, and estimate the size of the perceived increase in size of the moon at the horizon.  Then you could check out the real full moon that’s out and see how this activity holds up to the actual full moon illusion.

This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Background

A full moon rising over the horizon often appears to be unusually large, but looks smaller as it moves up in the sky.  The actual size of the moon stays the same.  So what is the basis for this full moon illusion?  One well-supported theory is that the brain “thinks” the sky overhead is closer than the sky at the horizon and it adjusts the size of the moon’s image accordingly.  When the moon is near the horizon, your brain miscalculates the moon’s true distance and size, making it seem larger.

One way to explore this illusion is with afterimages, which are caused by cone cell fatigue after staring at a brightly colored object.  While the actual size of the afterimage on your retina doesn’t change, the perceived size of the afterimage actually changes depending on the distance between you and the surface on which you view the afterimage, or its perceived distance.  This phenomenon is known as Emmert’s law.

Materials

  • A sheet of blue construction paper.  A blue pen or pencil can be used instead, but is less preferable.
  • Scissors
  • Glue or tape
  • A sheet of yellow construction paper.  A white sheet of paper can be used instead, but is less preferable.
  • A timer or a clock that shows seconds and a helper
  • An area with a clear view of the horizon and the zenith (which is the region of the sky directly overhead).  Also, this part of the activity should be done mid-morning or in the evening (to avoid looking at the sun), and on a day that is fairly cloudless with a lot of blue sky.

Preparation

  1. Cut a square out of the blue construction paper, about 1 to 2 inches on each side.  
  2. Lay the yellow sheet of construction paper down in the landscape position.  Fold the paper in half, hamburger style (taking the right side of the paper and folding it over the left side).  Then unfold the paper.  
  3. Using glue or tape, attach the blue square to the yellow sheet of construction paper, in the middle of the left or right half of the yellow sheet.  Be careful not to cover the top of the square or yellow sheet with the tape or glue.
  4. If you do not have construction paper, you may draw a solid blue square on the right or left side of a plain white sheet of paper, as described.

Procedure

  1. Hold the yellow paper with the blue square in front of you.  Stare at the blue square for 30 seconds.  (Use a timer or have a helper watch a clock for you.) Without changing the distance between your head and the yellow paper, switch from looking at the blue square to looking at the empty half of the yellow paper.  Do you see the afterimage of the square? If you cannot clearly see an afterimage, try repeating this step until you can.
  2. Once the afterimage fades, keep your head the same distance from the paper as it was before and again stare at the blue square for 30 seconds. Then look for the afterimage on the empty half of the yellow paper, but this time try moving your head away from, or closer to, the yellow paper.  How does the size of the afterimage change as you change the distance between your head and the yellow sheet of paper?  If you could not clearly see a change, try repeating this step until you can.
  3. Overall, how did the size of the afterimage change as you changed the distance between your head and the yellow paper?
  4. Next, go outside to an area with a clear view of the horizon and zenith.  Do not do this at noon, when the sun is directly overhead, since this interferes with your observation of the afterimage at the zenith (the sky directly overhead).  Mid-morning or evening is probably the best time to do this, and the day should be fairly cloudless with a lot of blue sky to look at.  
  5. Stare at the blue square on the yellow sheet for 30 seconds and then look at the horizon.  Is there an apparent change in the size of the afterimage?  In other words, does the afterimage look smaller, larger, or the same size as the blue square? You can repeat this step a few times if you are unsure of your observations.
  6. Next stare at the blue square for 30 seconds and then look at the zenith.  Is there an apparent change in the size of the afterimage?  Does the afterimage look smaller, larger, or the same size as the blue square?  Again, you can repeat this step if you are unsure of your observations.
  7. Overall, did the afterimage appear smaller, larger, or the same size at the horizon compared to at the zenith?

Extra: Try the first part of this activity again (before you go outside) but this time try to quantify how the size of the afterimage changes depending on the distance between your head and the yellow sheet.  (Be sure to always stare at the blue square from the same distance.)  You could put the yellow sheet on a wall next to a ruler to estimate the size of the afterimage.  Alternatively you could draw several differently sized squares (some bigger and some smaller than the blue square) nested together on the yellow sheet and try to see which square the afterimage best fits in. How does the distance between your head and the afterimage quantitatively correlate to the size of the afterimage?

Extra: Try to estimate the change in the size of the afterimage at the zenith compared to at the horizon.  To do this you could cut out several squares (on a white sheet of paper would work), some smaller and some larger than the blue square, and hold them out at arm’s length when looking at the afterimages.  Try to find the squares that are most similar in size to the afterimages.  Based on your findings, what is roughly the magnitude of the change of the full moon’s apparent size, between the horizon and the zenith?

Extra: Try to estimate the change in the size of the afterimage at 45 degrees above the horizon; that is, halfway between the horizon and the zenith.  What is the relative size of the afterimage at 45 degrees above the horizon, and how does it compare to the afterimage’s size at the zenith and the horizon?

Observations and Results

When you stared at the blue square, and then looked at the yellow sheet and moved your head away from, or closer to, the sheet, did the size of the afterimage increase with distance?  Did the afterimage look bigger on the horizon compared to its size at the zenith? 

While the actual size of the afterimage on your retina doesn’t change, the perceived size of the afterimage actually increases as you increase the distance between you and the surface on which you view the afterimage, or its perceived distance.  (Or, in other words, the perceived afterimage size decreases as you get closer to the surface you’re viewing it on.)  This phenomenon is known as Emmert’s law.  One theory for why we perceive the full moon to be larger at the horizon compared to at the zenith is that we perceive the sky overhead, at the zenith, as being closer than the sky at the horizon.  In this activity, this should have been apparent using afterimages; the afterimage at the horizon should have appeared larger than the afterimage at the zenith (although maybe only by a little, such as approximately 1.3 to 1.5 times larger at the horizon, depending on the exact conditions).

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Credits

Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies

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Key Concepts
Perception, optical illusions
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