“A comet is … a great clock, ticking out decades or geological ages once each perihelion passage, reminding us of the beauty and harmony of the Newtonian universe, and of the daunting insignificance of our place in space and time.”
Before the Earth was formed, there were comets here. Afterwards, and for all subsequent eons, comets have graced our skies. But until very recently, the comets performed without an audience; there was, as yet, no consciousness to wonder at their beauty. This all changed a few million years ago, but it was not until the last ten millennia or so that we began to make permanent records of our thoughts and feelings. Ever since, comets have left a good deal more than dust and gas in their wakes; they have trailed images, poetry, questions, and insights.
Four centuries before Sagan, two before comet-huntress Caroline Herschel spearheaded the systematic scientific study of comets, and one before Johannes Hevelius created his intricate comet drawings, an author and illustrator whose name or names remain lost to history produced one of the most breathtaking such works of “images, poetry, questions, and insights” inspired by comets: Kometenbuch, or The Comet Book, created in 1587 in what was then Flanders and is now France.
More akin to the Medieval Book of Miracles than to modern popular science — this, after all, was a pre-Newtonian world in which Galileo was still a student — the book concerns itself with the various superstitions about comets, the periodicity of which triggered the human mind’s pattern-seeking propensity: they came to be seen as omens of drought, famine, or bloodshed to come. As such, this stunningly illustrated book stands as a testament, both beautiful and tragic, to the perennial human tendency toward filling the void of fact with fictions that alleviate the anxiety of the unknown.
It is also an invaluable piece of media history — sightings of “wonders,” comets chief among them, were major news in that era, but until the invention of the printing press just a couple of decades earlier, they were transmitted only by word of moth and one-on-one letter correspondence. Superstitions and mythical beliefs like those surrounding comet sightings are among the oldest and most virulent of memes; pamphlets like The Comet Book became a key early medium of memetic transmission.
For a counterpart from across the precipice between the pre-scientific and scientific worlds, see French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning astronomical drawings created three centuries later at the Harvard Observatory, then let Sagan and Druyan take us out:
Comets may act as the creators, the preservers, and the destroyers of life on Earth. A surviving dinosaur might have reason to mistrust them, but humans might more appropriately consider the comets in a favorable light—as bringers of the stuff of life to Earth, as ocean-builders, as the agency that removed the competition and made possible the success of our mammalian ancestors, as possible future outposts of our species, and as providers of a timely reminder about large explosions and the climate of the Earth.
A comet is also a visitor from the frigid interstellar night that constitutes by far the greatest part of the known universe. And a comet is, further, a great clock, ticking out decades or geological ages once each perihelion passage, reminding us of the beauty and harmony of the Newtonian universe, and of the daunting insignificance of our place in space and time. If, by chance, the period of a bright comet happens to be the same as a human lifetime, we invest it with a more personal significance. It reminds us of our mortality.
Public domain images courtesy of Open Repository Kassel
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