Library scrambles to nab moon egg

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western Geography professor Philip Stooke’s 38-year-old egg, painted as Phobos, one of the moons of Mars, will soon find a new home in the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Philip Stooke has heard them all.

That’s ‘egg’-cellent. You must have worked ‘egg’-stra hard on that. It’s ‘egg’-ceptionally well done

But the Western Geography professor probably never ‘egg’-spected the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to come calling for one of his whimsical creations – a 38-year-old egg painted as one of the moons of Mars.

It was 1971 when an American spacecraft arrived at Mars and took the first up-close photographs of the Red Planet and its moons.

“This was the first time we ever saw these irregular objects,” said Stooke, who was living Victoria, B.C., at the time. “Before that, people have been making maps of the Earth for thousands of years, and the moon and Mars for hundreds of years – the objects were always perfectly spherical.

“Suddenly, we got these pictures of things that were irregular in shape, and people weren’t quite sure how to go about mapping them. They weren’t too irregular, just a little bit elongated, somewhat egg shaped.”

Six years later, the Viking 1 and Viking 2 spacecrafts were the first landers on the planet’s surface. They also brought orbiters, which took detailed pictures of Mars’ moons.

“One of these moons is called Phobos,” Stooke said. “It is significant because it turned out to have a whole series of parallel valleys. Nobody knew what they were, how they formed or anything.”

It raised a few questions for Stooke.

“We knew the object was a bit elongated. So, were these grooves kind of running end-to-end on this elongated shape? Were they running around the middle or were they in just some sort of random orientations relative to the shape?”

To investigate, he made the moon – on an egg.


“Instead of decorating it like a Ukrainian Easter egg, I drew Phobos on it,” he said. “I had a picture that showed the full length visible in the image. So, I would hold the egg in that orientation and sketch a few features on it. Then, I’d get another picture that showed the end and would turn the egg around and sketch that. It eventually built up this 3D image of a globe on an egg.”

Stooke designed the egg purely out of fun, but has since taken a strong interest in the moon’s valleys.

When he made his way to Western in 1989, the egg made the cross-country trek as well. He kept it in an ironic sort of protective case – thanks to his wife. L’eggs, a popular 70’s brand of pantyhose, was sold in a unique, white plastic egg shell; that shell became Stooke’s official egg-carrying case.

The egg has been part of his Social Science Centre office for the last 26 years, but shortly will be calling the Library of Congress home. The largest library in the world – home to 36 million books and printed materials, as well as more than 121 million maps, manuscripts, photographs, films, audio and video recordings, prints and drawings and other special collections – have requested Stooke donate his Phobos egg.

After writing a paper about lunar and planetary mapping in the 20th century, Stooke was invited to a conference by library staff to speak on mapping non-spherical objects. He shared the story of his egg through one of his slide presentations.

“I was showing off my egg. But remember, this is the Library of Congress, and you can never upstage the Library of Congress. So, they had a wonderful historical map painted on an ostrich egg, which they were quick to point out,” Stooke laughed.

Members of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress became interested in what Stooke had been doing with mapping and asked if he would donate some of his materials – including the egg.

“It’s been 38 years, so I’ll let them have it,” he said. “I’m getting to the stage of ‘What am I going to do with all this stuff when I retire?’ It’s not much to look at, but it was a fun process. It’s not very often you get a request from the Library of Congress. It was quite a surprise.”