Sunday: Fears Of The Comet Are Foolish And Ungrounded

Off topic discourse and banter encouraged.
User avatar
bystander
Apathetic Retiree
Posts: 20809
Joined: Mon Aug 28, 2006 2:06 pm
Location: Oklahoma

Sunday: Fears Of The Comet Are Foolish And Ungrounded

Post by bystander » Fri May 07, 2010 5:44 pm

Fears Of The Comet Are Foolish And Ungrounded
Sunday Magazine - 07 May 2010
Image
FEARS OF THE COMET ARE FOOLISH AND UNGROUNDED:
Mary Proctor Tells of Similar Scares in the Past, Occuring Every Time
These Blazing Visitors Were Expected, and All Proved Groundless
(Credit: New York Times Sunday Magazine | 08 May 1910)
Every 76 years or so, Halley’s Comet passes by Earth. 1910 was one of those years. The comet was coming so close that Earth would actually pass through part of its tail. And apparently people were freaked out. Mary Proctor was a well known astronomer at the time (as was her father before her) and in this article she tries to calm everybody down. Earth passing through the tail of a comet, she says, is like a rhino passing through a spider web. The comet’s tail is so huge and the particles in it are so small that they don’t pose any risk to the planet.
...
Proctor goes on to describe how several comets through history have been heralded as omens both good and bad, but that none of them did much other than put on a light show. So there’s nothing to worry about.

Or is there?

In his 2008 book Death from the Skies!, astronomer Phil Plait examines the various ways the world might actually end. In his chapter on asteroid and comet impacts, he writes, “So how big a danger are asteroid and comet impacts? Statistically speaking, you’re not going to like the answer: the odds of getting hit are 100 percent. Yes, really. Given enough time, and if we do nothing about it, there will be impacts, and one will be big.” But fortunately, he also says that “of all the woes facing us from space, this is the one that is nearly 100 percent preventable.” All we have to do is fund the research to detect and deflect them in time.
And we are still getting pounded by fallout from this comet.

Meteor Shower Created by Halley's Comet Peaks Thursday
Space.com | Night Sky | 05 May 2010
It's been 24 years since Halley's Comet last passed through the inner solar system, but remnants from the icy wanderer will light up the dawn sky this week in the Eta Aquarid meteor shower.

User avatar
bystander
Apathetic Retiree
Posts: 20809
Joined: Mon Aug 28, 2006 2:06 pm
Location: Oklahoma

BA: Bad Astronomy, circa 1910

Post by bystander » Tue May 11, 2010 2:36 pm

Bad Astronomy, circa 1910
Bad Astronomy - 11 May 2010

In April, I wrote about David Friedman of Ironic Sans, who has started a new blog called Sunday Magazine, where he scans in and talks about old New York Times Sunday Magazines from a century ago. It’s a weirdly engaging thing to do, and gives us a slice of what life was like back then.

This week he has another astronomy-related article: in the May 8, 1910 issue of the [NYT] magazine, writer Mary Proctor debunks fears that Halley’s Comet would destroy life on Earth.

I strongly urge you to read the whole article. It has a very familiar ring to it… because it reads very much like every single cosmic doomsday rumor ever since. It’s all there: people making wild claims, exaggerated rumors of destruction with nebulous origins, scared schoolchildren, a complete lack of memory of the last time something like this happened, and so on.

I went through this exact exercise in the months leading up to May 2003, when rumors spread over the net and on late night radio shows about Planet X wiping out life on Earth. And in 2000, when an alignment of the planets didn’t wipe us out. And in 2008 when asteroid 2007TU24 missed us — that one got so bad and so dumb I had to make a lengthy video debunking it.

So at first I read the 1910 article about Halley with some amusement… but after a minute or two I’ll admit it turned into, well, not despair exactly, but certainly frustration. There are many evils in human nature, but two of the most pernicious are willful ignorance and the desire of some to profit from that ignorance. People ignore science and reality until it comes up to bite them on the backside. In a lot of cases it’s forgivable; children who haven’t yet been taught science, people who’ve never been exposed to it, and so on. But the flip side is the purposeful downplaying of science, which we’ve seen quite glaringly in the past few decades.

As to the people who try to profit off such ignorance — doomsday video and book writers, politicians pushing their own agendas, and so on — there is no circle of Hell deep enough for them.

But ignorance and profiteering will always be with us, and they are sadly promulgated by that third great weakness: short memory spans. A lot of people were scared by the 2003 Planet X nonsense, and the May 2000 alignment of the planets before that. These things make the news right up until they don’t happen… and then are forgotten within days. Who will remember December 2012 by the year 2015?

I hate it, but I suppose I can think of it as job security.

I may have felt frustration after reading that article, but I also felt my resolve strengthen. There are lots of people out there willing to fight the nonsense, and together we are mighty. Doomsday scares will always come and go — some will even become major religions, no doubt — and what this 1910 article says most clearly is that we must always be vigilant against them.

User avatar
owlice
Guardian of the Codes
Posts: 8389
Joined: Wed Aug 04, 2004 4:18 pm
Location: Washington, DC

Re: BA: Bad Astronomy, circa 1910

Post by owlice » Tue May 11, 2010 2:48 pm

And this is why the school cafeteria at my 1st-8th grade school was (likely still is) vegetarian...
A closed mouth gathers no foot.

User avatar
owlice
Guardian of the Codes
Posts: 8389
Joined: Wed Aug 04, 2004 4:18 pm
Location: Washington, DC

Hawking Halley's comet

Post by owlice » Sun Jun 06, 2010 1:38 am

My brother, son, and I were going through some of the plentiful junk stuff in my mother's house today, and between a 1937 physics textbook (apparently borrowed through UMich's textbook loan service) and a 1952 book on electronics (which my brother paged through fondly) was an envelope from the Department of the Navy, US Navel Observatory. In it were three different typewritten flyers and a nice booklet from 1986 about Halley's comet. One of the flyers and the cover of the booklet appear below.
Halley30.gif
Halley32.jpg
You do not have the required permissions to view the files attached to this post.
A closed mouth gathers no foot.