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Posts Tagged ‘comet

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




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…


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


“I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.”*…



Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid/comet, “Oumuamua”


Or not…

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka, ‘Oumuamua). In the months that followed, multiple follow-up observations were conducted that allowed astronomers to get a better idea of its size and shape, while also revealing that it had the characteristics of both a comet and an asteroid.

Interestingly enough, there has also been some speculation that based on its shape, ‘Oumuamua might actually be an interstellar spacecraft (Breakthrough Listen even monitored it for signs of radio signals!). A new study by a pair of astronomers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has taken it a step further, suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may actually be a light sail of extra-terrestrial origin…

As for what an extra-terrestrial light sail would be doing in our solar system, [Harvard astronomers Shmuel Bialy and Prof. Abraham Loeb] offer some possible explanations for that. First, they suggest that the probe may actually be a defunct sail floating under the influence of gravity and stellar radiation, similar to debris from ship wrecks floating in the ocean. This would help explain why Breakthrough Listen found no evidence of radio transmissions.

Loeb further illustrated this idea in a recent article he penned for Scientific American, where he suggested that ‘Oumuamua could be the first known case of an artificial relic which floated into our solar system from . What’s more, he notes that lightsails with similar dimensions have been designed and constructed by humans, including the Japanese-designed IKAROS project and the Starshot Initiative with which he is involved.

“This opportunity establishes a potential foundation for a new frontier of space archaeology, namely the study of relics from past civilizations in space,” Loeb wrote. “Finding evidence for space junk of artificial origin would provide an affirmative answer to the age-old question “Are we alone?”. This would have a dramatic impact on our culture and add a new cosmic perspective to the significance of human activity.”

On the other hand, as Loeb told Universe Today, ‘Oumuamua could be an active piece of alien technology that came to explore our solar system, the same way we hope to explore Alpha Centauri using Starshot and similar technologies”…

More provocative detail at “Could ‘Oumuamua be an extraterrestrial solar sail?

* Arthur C. Clarke


As we ask if we’re alone, we might recall that it was on this date in 1572 that Wolfgang Schüler first noted a supernova in the W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.  It was subsequently seen by other observers, including Tycho Brahe, who included an account of the sighting in his De nova stellaConsequently, the supernova– one of eight visible to the naked eye in historical records– is known as “Tycho’s Supernova.”


Star map of the constellation Cassiopeia showing the position (labelled I) of the supernova of 1572; from Tycho Brahe’s De nova stella




Written by LW

November 6, 2018 at 2:01 am

“There is music in the spacing of the spheres”*…


… just one of the collections to be found at NASA’s Soundcloud stream.

Here’s a collection of NASA sounds from historic spaceflights and current missions. You can hear the roar of a space shuttle launch or Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” every time you get a phone call if you make our sounds your ringtone. Or, you can hear the memorable words “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” every time you make an error on your computer…

Or just listen with wonder…

* Pythagoras


As we tune our ears, we might send celestial birthday greetings to Fred Lawrence Whipple; he was born on this date in 1906.  An active astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory for over 70 years, Whipple discovered a variety of asteroids and comets, came up with the “dirty snowball” cometary hypothesis, and designed the Whipple shield (which protects spacecraft from impact by small particles by vaporizing them).

You can hear a comet like the ones that Whipple studied here.



Written by LW

November 5, 2014 at 1:01 am

It’s not too early to think about *next year’s* Fathers Day…

From the silly…

The Cabana Islander holds up to 6 people. Impractical in a swimming pool, it’s really only useful in a big body of water, like an ocean, where you might fall asleep and drift out to sea.

The only good thing about this $364 piece of inflatable plastic is that when you do, inevitably, wake up somewhere over the horizon, you’ve got up to five other family members or friends to eat. Just make sure you bring someone weak when you set sail for disaster, since you’ll need to conserve as much energy as possible in the process of overpowering them to eat their body.

…through the sillier…

This computer mouse hides a digital scale inside and has a little compartment to stash a tiny amount of weed. This would be more practical if a desktop computer wasn’t a big square box with a ton of empty space where you could put a full-sized scale and several ounces of weed.

Customers who bought this also bought a plastic bic lighter that you can store an even tinier amount of weed in. Who are all these customers and what are they doing with their tiny pieces of weed?

… to the tasteless…

 “I have a clean!”  Thanks once again, capitalism, for reminding us that one of the greatest Americans in history can be reduced to a joke for a few thousand bucks. We laugh and destroy the few people willing to put their lives at stake to ensure a better future for the next generation. One day the sun will swallow the Earth, and the rest of the universe will breathe a sigh of relief.

…and the downright insulting…

“Unless your the worlds most fuckable man, you need Sure Fuck Cologne!” (sic) says the manufacturer.   They also brag it “drives women into a Hot Sexual Frenzy!”  If that’s true, it must smell an awful lot like having a full-time job.

… it’s all at The Worst Things for Sale.


As we contemplate commercial creativity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1178 that “The upper horn of the moon split in two … a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out fire, hot coals & sparks”: an asteroid or comet collided with the moon resulting in a violent explosion that created the Giordano Bruno crater.

The upper horn [of the moon] split in two.  From the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals and sparks. Meanwhile the body of the Moon which was below writhed, as it were in anxiety, and to put it in the words of those who reported it to me and saw it with their own eyes, the Moon throbbed like a wounded snake. Afterwards it resumed its proper state. This phenomenon was repeated a dozen times or more, the flame assuming various twisting shapes at random and then returning to normal. Then, after these transformations, the Moon from horn to horn, that is along its whole length, took on a blackish appearance.
Gervase, Friar and Chronicle at Canterbury, who witnessed the event

NASA photo of the Moon’s Giordano Bruno crater


Written by LW

June 18, 2013 at 1:01 am

UFOs (Unusual Feynman Objects)…


Richard Feynman was a once-in-a-generation intellectual. He had no shortage of brains. (In 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics.) He had charisma. (Witness this outtake from his 1964 Cornell physics lectures [available in full here].) He knew how to make science and academic thought available, even entertaining, to a broader public. (We’ve highlighted two public TV programs hosted by Feynman here and here.) And he knew how to have fun. The clip above brings it all together.

From Open Culture (where one can also find Feynman’s elegant and accessible 1.5 minute explanation of “The Key to Science.”)


As we marvel at method, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Giovanni Batista Donati made the first spectroscopic observations of a comet tail (from the small comet, Tempel, 1864 b).  At a distance from the Sun, the spectrum of a comet is identical to that of the Sun, and its visibility is due only to reflected sunlight.  Donati was able to show that a comet tail formed close to the Sun contains luminous gas, correctly deducing that the comet is itself partially gaseous.  In the spectrum of light from the comet tail, Donati saw the three absorption lines now known as the “Swan bands” superimposed on a continuous spectrum.


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