Death by Comet, Fueling the Sun, and Other Comet Tales

This week brought news of the first successful landing on a comet when the Philae probe landed on comet 67p, 310 million miles from earth. The comet even sings! The probe’s bad landing means that we may not get as much data as we’d hoped, but it’s still a pretty cool achievement. In honor of the occasion, I’ve pulled a few choice comet items from our collection.

An astronomical catechism for the instruction and entertainment of young gentlemen and ladies. London: T. Wilkins, 1792. EL2 .A1a. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

An Astronomical Catechism for the Instruction and Entertainment of Young gentlemen and Ladies was published in  1792 and features an entire section on comets. It discusses the number of comets (21 known at that time), their orbits, their composition, and the extreme temperature variations which they undergo. Faced with the existence of extreme swings of light and temperature, the catechism leaves open the question of whether comets might be inhabited:

Of what Texture must the Inhabitants be, suppose there be any it?

 No Mortal can solve your Query, but although Creatures of our Texture are not calculated to exist in such Worlds, God has appropriated us and our World the one for the other; and he also can form Creatures proper for those other World which he has created.

The catechism also attempts to answer “What is the Use of Comets.” Drawing from Newton, the catechism claims that comets provide “Fuel for the Sun” when they fall in and otherwise “the Sun  would be in Danger of wasting from the continual emission of light.” The author also presents Newton’s theory that comets provide an ongoing supply of moisture for the earth, which would otherwise dry out from evaporation and from the decay of vegetation into “dry earth”.

An astronomical catechism for the instruction and entertainment of young gentlemen and ladies. London: T. Wilkins, 1792. EL2 .A1a. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Since ancient times comets have often been seen as harbingers of disaster and the catechism hedges its bets when answering the question “Have Comets any Effect upon the Earth?” The author admits:

The Astronomers of the present Age think not. Until this Century it was always believed that Almighty … made use of them as second Causes to effect great and terrible Events, but our enlightened and improving Age both in Science and Religion have quite exploded that Sentiment.

However he then goes on to say:

I have minutely examined the above number of Comets 418. by all the Authors who lived in their respective Times, that I have read, and find them all attended with affecting Events, and 28 of  them with most dreadful Draughts even to Famines.” 

He further claims that God caused Noah’s flood via comet and that the end of the world (which God promised would be through fire, not water) might be caused through a comet colliding with earth.

A half century later, Edgar Allen Poe played both upon comets’ traditional association with disaster and on the scientific opinion that they were not actually dangerous. First published in a magazine in 1839 and in Poe’s collected Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840, “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” is a tale of apocalypse by comet.

Edgar Allen Poe, Tales of the grotesque and arabesque. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1840. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

In the story, a new comet is discovered and it is headed for the earth. However, learned men dismiss the idea of any danger:

That material injury to our globe or to its inhabitants would result
from the apprehended contact, was an opinion which
hourly lost ground among the wise…It was
demonstrated, that the density of the comet’s nucleus was far less
than that of our rarest gas; and the harmless passage of a similar visitor among the
satellites of Jupiter was a point strongly insisted upon, and which served
greatly to allay terror. … That the final destruction of the
earth must be brought about by the agency of fire, was urged with a
that enforced every where conviction; and that the comets
were of no fiery nature (as all men now knew) was a truth which relieved
in a great measure, from the apprehension of the great
calamity foretold. It is noticeable that the popular prejudices and
vulgar errors
in regard to pestilences and wars — errors which were wont
to prevail upon every appearance of a comet — were now altogether
unknown. As if by some sudden convulsive exertion, reason
had at once hurled superstition from her throne. 

In the end God and the comet have the last laugh. As it nears earth the comet somehow attracts all nitrogen to itself, leaving only oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. This initially makes people feel physically rejuvenated, but soon pain arrives “in a rigorous constriction of the
breast and lungs, and an insufferable dryness of the skin…We gasped in the rapid modification of the air. The red blood bounded tumultuously through its strict channels. A
furious delirium possessed all men; and, with arms rigidly outstretched towards
the threatening heavens, they trembled and shrieked aloud

 Then the comet destroys the oxygen-laden world in a huge fiery conflagration.

There came a shouting and pervading sound, as if from the mouth itself of HIM;
while the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at
once into a species of intense flame, for whose
surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels
in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name. Thus ended all.

Poe’s story was influenced by a both a popular interest in the end times and an interest in comets. Predictions of the end of the world were current at the time; in the early 1830s William Miller began to prophesy that the
second coming of Christ and the end of the world were nigh, eventually
settling on 1843 as the probable date. Comets were also very much in the news; Halley’s comet was visible in 1835 and Encke’s comet passed by in 1835 and 37.

I will close with George Cruikshank’s amusing picture of a man riding a comet, intended as an illustration for The Beauties of Washington Irving, in which Irving notes the way comets are used to explain all kinds of phenomena:

 I cannot help noticing the kindness of providence in creating comets for the great relief of bewildered philosophers. By their assistance more sudden evolutions and transitions are effected in the system of nature than are wrought in a pantomimic exhibition by the wonder working sword of harlequin. Should one of our modern sages in his theoretical flights among the stars ever find himself lost in the clouds and in danger of tumbling into the abyss of nonsense and absurdity he has but to seize a comet by the beard mount astride of its tail and away he gallops in triumph like an enchanter on his hippogriff or a Connecticut witch on her broomstick to sweep the cobwebs out of the sky.

George Cruikshank, Illustration for The beauties of Washingotn Irving.  1820, 1954.1880.3152  The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia      

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia
and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog.