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.
Here is her description of the hysteria:
A dismal report is circulating to the effect that Halley’s comet is about to cause the destruction of our planet, and as we draw nearer the fateful date of May 18, a grave feeling of apprehension is excited in the minds of those who are very naturally afraid of something they cannot understand.
Here is a gigantic monster in the sky with a head over two hundred thousand miles in width… and a train two million miles in length, rushing through space at the alarming rate of a thousand miles a minute.
On May 18 the earth will be plunged in this white hot mass of glowing gas, and, according to the report of the ignorant and superstitious, the world will be set on fire.
These sensation makers further say that the oceans on the side facing the comet will be boiled by the intense heat, and the land scorched and blistered as the dread wanderer passes by on its baneful way.
How the report started, and by whom it is difficult to trace, but the harm is done. We hear daily of people overcome with terror, one committing suicide, preferring to choose his own manner of death rather than await the coming of the final destruction of the earth. Another has gone insane, and numberless other cases, if known, might be added, showing the harm which has been done by the sensational articles which have been published accompanied by lurid illustrations showing purely imaginary effects of the comet.
Even children are afraid of the approaching comet, as evidenced by the following pathetic letter from a little girl eleven years old at a school in New York. It was sent to the writer last March, while she was in England, and reads as follows:
“I am in a very bad fix, in fact the whole school is. Every one says that the world will come to an end on the 18th of the month. Is it true the earth is to pass through the comet and we will all burn up? Tell me if it is true, also when shall we be able to see the comet! Please excuse this letter, but I don’t want to die.”
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.
Update: Phil Plait has written a very thoughtful commentary about this post on his site.
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 (PDF)
From May 8, 1910