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Hale-Bopp Lived Up to Comet Expectations

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

I know you have been saturated with information about Comet Hale-Bopp, but please read one more article on the subject.

Comet Hale-Bopp is one of the great comets of all time, spectacular in our skies while yielding more scientific information about comets than ever before. It is still visible, but now in the twilight glow. You might be able to follow it for a few more days as it goes off into our sunset to later become visible for observers in the Southern Hemisphere, dimming all the time. Since April first it has been getting farther from the Sun and will continue to do so for a couple of thousand years until it begins its next plunge into the inner part of the solar system, perhaps for earthlings to see again. So, as we say good-bye to this grand spectacle of our spring 1997 sky, let's attempt to put this comet into perspective.

Comets have been seen, from time to time, throughout human history. They were seen by people in ancient Mediterranean cultures. They were seen by the early Chinese, elsewhere in Asia, in Africa, Australia, both north and south America, and by eyes looking up from islands throughout the oceans. In China they were known as "broom stars." Some American Pawnee Indians referred to them as "feather headdress stars" or "downy-feather stars." Navajos have been known to call them "stars with smoke." To the Greeks they were "stars with hair:" indeed, the name Comet comes from the Greek kometes, meaning "hairy one."

All cultures, in each of their own ways, learned how to predict the primary changes going on in earth and sky. They knew that seasons were accompanied by changes in the visible patterns of Sun and stars. The Moon and planets, however, caused them considerable concern, since their motions did not correlate to the seasons. But even these could be predicted in their apparent movements confined within a band of constellations, the zodiac. Comets were an entirely different story. No one knew when one might appear and it could move on any path or direction in the sky. It might be visible for just a few days, or for several months, and it would go away as mysteriously as it had appeared. Thus, comets became symbols of unpredictability, portents of death, destruction, disaster, downfall of empires, or evil in general.

Comet scientist Fred L. Whipple put it this way. "We are dealing with a twisted version of the old saying `beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.' The fearsome look of comets lies deep in the mind of the viewer." Culturally speaking, we could say that sinister human concepts of comets lie deep in our cultural mentality, for we have lived so long with ideas that comets forecast death to kings and nations. In our scientific age most of us can look upon a comet with wonder in our eyes and describe what we see as "magnificent," "stunning," "spectacular," or simply "beautiful." However, Hale-Bopp has reminded us that humans have not exhausted their potential imaginations relating to these "hairy stars."

One of the lesser-known novels of Jules Verne was titled Off on a Comet, a fanciful story about a group of people on a chunk of earth swept off the face of our planet by a grazing comet. They nearly perished as the comet carried them far into cold space, but the story ended happily when the comet returned to deposit their piece of land back into the warm and fuzzy bosom of good old Mother Earth. It is easy to understand why this is not one of Verne's famous stories, for it was not even good science fiction in the day it was written. We need not look that far back, however, to find ridiculous comet ideas that became more widely accepted. Even today some people put credence in Immanuel Velikovsky's theories that would explain such things as the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea as due to the effects of a passing comet.

Yes, people still get off on comets in very strange ways. Certainly none have been more bizarre than the belief that an alien spacecraft came zooming in behind a comet to pick up the soles of a group who shed their "containers" through suicide. The comet that pulls away from us now could well go down in history with two common names: "Hale-Bopp" and "Heaven's Gate."

Each time a comet plunges through our region of space we are in a better position to learn from it. We apply new technologies in quest of details for better comprehension of the history of the solar system and the universe. Each time we also are reminded that humans do not change as much as our increase in knowledge would warrant. The time probably never will come when human imagining will be any more contained than it ever has been. There will be those among us who will continue to look around, acquire new and better data and apply the logic of mathematics to study the structures of the smallest of things in attempt to comprehend the grandest of things. There will always be others, however, willing to throw logic to the winds and accept whatever comes along no matter how it matches the best information humans have harvested over the ages. I wonder what it will be like on both counts a few thousand years from now when Comet Hale-Bopp returns?

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