Every seventy-six years or so, Earth crosses paths with another resident of our solar system as the two of us get about the business of circling our mutual sun. It’s a pretty exciting event when it happens, at least as I seem to vaguely recall from my childhood in the 1980s when we last said hello to Halley’s comet.
But to be honest, the encounter hasn’t always been perfectly friendly. Over the millennia this innocent-looking comet that may seem to mind its own business has been the cause of quite a bit of consternation. It has portended all kinds of dramatic and often violent changes in the world from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans just a few short years after its appearance, to the Norman Conquest of England, to the Mongol invasion of Europe undertaken by Genghis Kahn.
It wasn’t until 1704 when Edmund Halley pieced together that several of the comets observed throughout history might in fact be the same comet seen again and again, that we even knew our bad news neighbor’s name. Halley correctly predicted that the comet would be observed in 1758, and though he wasn’t alive to see it happen, he was right.
Armed with a new, slightly more scientific understanding of the comet, we the people of Earth didn’t find it quite so scary. That is until May 20, 1910 when it tried to kill us all. That’s when respected French astronomist Camille Flammarion used spectroscopy to discover that the comet’s tail contained cyanogen gas, that would certainly poison Earth’s atmosphere and swiftly wipe out all life on the planet.
Not every highly regarded astronomist agreed, but much like today, expert disagreement wasn’t enough to stop the press from hyping a good story. And boy was it a good story. It sparked others to claim that the gravitational pull alone from the comet would cause the oceans to swell and cover great stretches of land, sweeping uprooted American forests across the Sahara Desert. The panicked public furiously sealed the cracks around doors and windows to keep the deadly gas from entering their homes and stocked up on essential supplies like gas masks and anti-comet pills. Toilet paper, too, I assume.
When May 20th arrived and the comet came into view right on time, humanity held its breath and awaited extinction.
Now, as a purveyor of conversational historical cocktail party-worthy tidbits, let me be the first to reassure you that all life on planet Earth did not in fact come to an end in that moment. While there is poisonous cyanogen gas in the tail of Halley’s Comet, it’s not there in a significant enough concentration to make a lick of difference to life on the earth. The gravitational pull, too, of our punctual but not-so-scary neighborhood comet is of no significant consequence to our big blue ball of a home.
Which was just the kind of misinformation that got the vast majority of astronomists banned from all the social media sites. After life on the earth didn’t end catastrophically, Camille Flammarion did what any good disproven researcher would and assembled a bunch of witnesses who swore that though the danger of the poison gas might have been slightly miscalculated, they definitely smelled a whiff of something funny in the air.
I can’t argue with testimony like that. Pretty much every time the media runs with a story that forecasts the end of the world, I’m pretty sure I smell something funny. Anyway, if anyone needs them, I’ve got a stockpile of anti-comet pills. I’d be happy to sell you one for an exorbitant fee. Come the year 2061 and Earth’s next encounter with Halley’s Comet, you may be glad you have one.