(Roughly) Daily

“Doomsday is quite within our reach, if we will only stretch for it”*…

 

komet-001-930x598

 

Ah, to have planned for a comet apocalypse in the Belle Epoque! Looks like a wild time, according to all the 19th and 20th century postcards with folks soaring through the skies, bum over noggin, towards a starry death. Out of all the (ultimately) anti-climactic close comet calls, the 1910 approach of Halley’s Comet takes the cake. Not only did it lead to the first ever photograph of a comet, and the actual gathering of “spectroscopic ” data, but because the anticipation of its arrival caused a media frenzy. Stores started selling “anti-comet pills.” Papers put out ads for escape submarine rentals. One cult considered sacrificing a virgin…

It’s hard for us science laypeople to fathom the workings of space, let alone its errant pebbles. Although, Halley’s never been just a random fly bye event; by 1705, its orbital period of 75 or so years was confirmed by the English astronomer, Edmond Halley, bringing us both the comet’s eponymous name and a new tradition: once, maybe even twice in a lifetime, the comet’s 24-million-mile long tail would become visible to the naked eye. Fun fact: he might not have had his breakthrough, if he hadn’t consulted a friend and fellow scholar named Isaac Newton.

But people started to wonder – were there consequences of such seemingly close contact? One account of its 1835 passing describes a “vapour trail” in the sky…

When Halley was next slated to return, it was at the beginning of a new century in 1910, when advancements in media and technology had radically accelerated the circulation of people and ideas, and major breakthroughs were being made in the automobile and radio industries; the world had seen the first airplanes and photographs – including the photographs of astronomical objects. That meant it was finally, hopefully, the moment to capture an image of the comet when it neared earth in one of its shortest return cycles yet, a mere 74 years. It had one man in particular, a French scientist named Camille Flammarion, feeling rather worried. Flammarion was a prominent, and above all colourful presence in the astronomy scene. He ran the journal L’Astronomie, as well as his own private, castle-like observatory in Juvisy-sur-Org, France, which you can still visit today…

As an author, he penned both scientific essays and science fiction with a talent for poetic turns of a phrase. Readers loved it; critics tended to roll their eyes at his tendency for sensationalism. “This end of the world will occur without noise, without revolution, without cataclysm,” he wrote in L’atmosphère : météorologie populaire in 1888, “Just as a tree loses leaves in the autumn wind, so the earth will see in succession the falling and perishing of all its children, and in this eternal winter, which will envelop it from then on, she can no longer hope for either a new sun or a new spring. She will purge herself of the history of the worlds.” Yikes.

The incoming of Halley’s comet, he said, contained a poisonous cyanogen gas that “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” When The New York Times ran a story on his assertion, the fear amplified on a global scale in the tabloids. One science writer, Matt Simon, said folks were so frightened, they began sealing up the keyholes of their houses to “keep the poison out of their homes.”… Comet pills, comet shelters, comet soap, and even submarine rentals became the norm for doomsday preppers… Even fashion took a turn. It wasn’t uncommon to find both amateur and professional-grade comet buttons, broaches and jewellery…

“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835,” Mark Twain famously wrote in 1909, decreeing that he fully expected “to go out with it in 1910,” which, to his credit, he did. Was Twain’s death a feat of willpower, coincidence, or fate? Who knows. But it was one in a series of events that used the comet as a launching pad for a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some cited the event as the cause of death of King Edward VII. The civil unrest surrounding the comet even helped spark China’s Xinhai Revolution in 1911, which effectively ended the last dynasty…

Halleys_comet_1910-930x1035

Halley in April 1910, from Harvard’s Southern Hemisphere Station, taken with an 8-inch Bache Doublet

 

It’s the end of the world as they knew it: “Doomsday Prepping in the Belle Epoque.”

* Loudon Wainwright III

###

As we eye the sky, we might send far-seeing birthday greetings to James Ferguson; he was born on this date in 1797.  Working at the U.S. Naval Observatory with a 9.6 inch refractor telescope, made the first discovery of an asteroid from North America (31 Euphrosyne).

150px-James_Ferguson_(astronomer) source

 

%d bloggers like this: