Comet Madness: How the 1910 Return of Halley's Comet (Almost) Destroyed Civilization

  • Type: Books
  • By: Richard Goodrich
  • Age Category: Adults
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Recommended by: Tom S.
  • ISBN/UPC: 9781633888562
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“When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”*

For thousands of years, the appearance of a comet in the skies has caused people a great deal of unease. What could be the meaning of such an otherworldly visitor? After all, don’t the sun, stars, and planets move across the heavens in a predictable way? A rogue cosmic interloper that simply appears from the unknown reaches of space must certainly foretell change here on earth as well. Right? Such was the attitude of many people toward comets well into the twentieth century. Though 1910 was near the pinnacle of the Progressive Era – when scientific understanding, technical developments and social science seemed to promise a better future for humankind - the expected reappearance of Halley’s comet in the spring of that year had many people worried. Would the comet hit the earth, obliterating all life on the planet? Or if Earth merely passed through the comet’s tail, did that tail contain deadly gasses that would exterminate the human population? As the author points out, most professional astronomers maintained scientific objectivity and refrained from making inflammatory statements: no, the comet was very unlikely to strike the earth; and no, even if the comet’s tail did contain deadly gasses, the earth’s dense atmosphere would in all probability protect people from those gasses. Citizens would not be dropping dead in the streets. But the world’s media (which in this era meant newspapers) were not so circumspect. Journalists, says the author, cared more about selling papers than they did informing the public, so sensationalism, exaggeration, and outright fabrications were the order of the day. The thinking ran like this: Who wants to read a story about some scientist saying we’re all going to be okay? Nobody. But predictions of death and destruction, and lurid stories about suicide cults? Bring ‘em on. This is an engaging work of social and scientific history. It also has much to say about an issue that is surprisingly timely: how people get their news, and how easily they can be swayed by misinformation and manipulation.

*William Shakespeare, 'Julius Caesar'