COMET: a ghost of futures past

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Thu Jan 11 2001 - 22:21:16 MST

Apologies for the length and perhaps the self-indulgence of this post. I've
been gathering some of my old articles and reviews, and I rather liked this
one written when Halley's Comet was in the offing. It appeared in a garbled
form in *Vogue Australia* 15 or 16 years ago. I've now recast my prediction
of Halley's comet's dimness into past tense, but left the wrong prediction
that Hale-Bopp would be brighter.


When I was quite small, I read about comets in a children's encyclopaedia.
My heart stopped, and then pounded. How can the world be prosaic, in a
universe where comets tear without much warning (or stranger still, with
clock-like reliability) out of the deep and innocent sky? There was a photo
of Halley's comet, pale hair stretched across the stars. It was pure beauty.
        Hairy stars! Tresses of light, blown by the Sun's bright wind! Mad
portents, death and ruin of kings (but today most of us democrats have no
kings, thank God, or, some of us, gods either, ditto), oracles written on
the black sky in scratchings of brightness, fogs fleeing from the icy ends
of the solar system to the warmth of our inner star, dirty iceballs of
chemical smut and smog (and--who knows? certainly not that kid stuck back
there in the fifties--alien DNA, genes, disease, life from space!) locked
up in a hazy, lovely wisp of lace: kometes, yes, the comet! guest star from
the boundaries of night, jog-plodding out there beyond Neptune and Pluto at
a measly kilometre a second, then racing like a mad hatless 19th century
schoolgirl with her hair all tossed and freed in the hot summer wind to
round the sky and hide behind the Sun and dash past the world as we craned
back our heads, peering at--what! where is it? give me the binoculars, the
damned thing's too dim...
        Well, Halley's comet was a blow-out, I regret to say, in April, 1986, its
nearest approach to Earth orbit. A bust, a non-event. Well, almost...
Parents perched their kids on tired shoulders, pointing without much
conviction at the dull patch. Pretty feeble, the faintest apparition in the
last two thousand years of triumphant Halley returns to the inner solar
system stage.
        How angry I would have been, three decades earlier in the mid-fifties
(Halley having hit aphelion--farthest point from the sun--four years after
my birth, yes, the year Orwell was getting down his dreadful vision of our
future era). Thirty-five times farther again out than Earth, and it takes
zippy light eight minutes to reach our neighbourly orbit. How angry I'd
have been to know how faint and difficult the rotten thing was to be in
that year of grace and light, 1986, when I turned 42.
        I was waiting patiently all that time, you see, a faithful devotee of
galaxies and comets. Child's heart pounding (this was years before sex, but
still...) I gazed besotted at the glowing portrait of M31 in Andromeda,
that wondrous whirlpool of a hundred billion great hot stars they called a
Nebula, then, in that old borrowed encyclopaedia volume. The scientists,
the dreadful Darwinists and Doubters, hadn't yet tumbled, in the world of
that volume (that lost past of my grandparents' generation), to the horrid
immensity of the cosmos. They took our Milky Way galaxy for the only one in
town, they thought the furry nebulae were blotches and foams of gas at the
edge of the fairground.
        Now we know better, of course. This little cosmos spread around our heads
is the merest grain of sand in a shoreline, an ocean of specks, still
blasting into a spacetime of its own making like the residue of a nuclear
fireball from the Big Bang origin somewhere back there 15 or 20 thousand
million years past. But when I was a kid, not all that long ago really in
cosmological or even historic terms, the available paperwork was woefully
out of date. The Gitas. The Holy Bible. The Qur'an. The Book of Mormon, for
that matter. You wouldn't want to jump-start a universe based on
documentation like that.
        Still, we're grateful for what we can get. For hours, in the mid-1950s, I
pressed my face to the glossy illustration pages in the Arthur Mees
encyclopaedia, the photographs from Mount Wilson with its fabulous
(pre-metric measurements) 100-inch telescope, all those heart-stirring
records from just the other day, 1910, when Halley's comet sent its fifty
million kilometre tail like a new Milky Way band of luminous gauze across
half the sky.
        It was coming back! That was the great thing. In 1985 or 1986, in the
impossible future, a future of adulthood (when you could buy all the
icecreams and lollies and jam biscuits you wished, and eat them one after
another, and no-one could tell you to stop!), Halley would return on its
elastic string of gravity, loop back like a cosmic yo-yo, picking up speed
and falling for the Sun, into the light, into the terrible heat and wind
from the Sun (though they didn't know about the wind then) (Wind! from the
Sun?!), and its dark insignificant cometary nucleus would hiss and steam
and breathe out light, light and bright dust, and the sky would open again
in its once-every-76-years apocalypse and apparition, like a contract
written by God attesting the Natural Human Span.
        That was the great thing, but I had not realised how dim the damned thing
was going to be at this end of the century, or how much rubbish we'd have
thrown up into the sky--street-light rubbish, flashing neon sign rubbish,
let alone the micro-muck spattered through the air we try to work our
cigarette-damaged lungs with.
        The great thing, by contrast, about being Ancient Man (3000 B.C., say),
was that you had (a) no television, theatre or movies to distract you at
night, (b) no good restaurants to go out to, and (c) no electric lights, a
drawback by some standards but okay at the time, due to a lack of (d) any
amusing reading matter, but then (e), don't forget, no reliable
contraceptives, and on top of all that you probably had (f) plenty of
flocks to watch all night. How you actually kept an eye on your flocks with
no electric power is anyone's guess.
        There must have been a wonderful sameness about it, for all that, rolled
in your cloak, the fire fallen into embers, gazing up at the endlessly
turning sky choked with stars too dim for our city-stunned eyes to capture.
(Wilfred Thesiger, that mad Briton who went among the wild desert men of
Arabia Deserta early in our century, met youths with sight so piercing they
could make out the circling moons of Jupiter, unknown to urban folk until
the invention of the telescope.)
        And if the uninterpreted heavens tell a single story, that tale is
Stability and Order. Now we know the sky is a shrieking chaos of exploding
quasars and flickering giant suns, imploding black holes and moon-cracking
asteroids. Then, though, all was peace, and the planets wandered to and fro
on their crystalline spheres, attended by the orbiting sun and moon,
speaking from eternity and earliest human history a corrupting, soothing
fable of Kingly Ordination:

        The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
        Observe degree, priority and place,
        Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
        Office and custom,

reported William Shakespeare, from a limb of revolution in history and
        But at spastic intervals the calm clockwork of the night ruptured without
warning, and surely nothing could more easily set you screaming in panic.
        A new star! Nova! (In fact, an old star blowing its top, as five billion
years ago a nearby big fat blue star went off the deep end and sent a shock
wave through a mess of cosmic dust and rubble, compressing it in pulses of
radiation, causing it to clump and fall together into cold lumps that
warmed themselves, and so started our Sun and ourselves...)
        If a star might erupt, burning for days or weeks like a god's eye, and
other stars tumble routinely to flare and streak (the meteors and their
metallic residues the meteorites, accepted by shepherds but mocked until
the end of the 18th century by savants who found them an affront to `form,
office and custom'), what might we make of comets, smashing like mad golf
balls through the stained-glass windows of the manse, through the crystal
spheres of church and state in the ordained macrocosm above our
corruptible, sublunary heads?
        Why, this was Revolution! Unthinkable! Omens and portents, yes, and foul
vapours, and pestilence from a broken promise of utter peace in the skies
above the clouds!
        Chinese astrologers suspected dragons, and recorded the comets faithfully
from the second millennium BC. Two of them, drunk as skunks, missed an
eclipse and lost their heads to imperial wrath, smartening up the rest of
their guild. Halley itself is recorded on almost every fly-by at least back
to 87 BC, and records of bright comets in 240 and 467 BC look familiar. But
it wasn't until Edmond Halley nudged his chum Newton at the end of the 17th
century for a clue to Universal Gravitation that these historical
annotations (some of them, anyway) fell beautifully into an elliptical
graph tracking the comet of 1682 backward and forward through time and
space. `I would venture confidently to predict its return,' quoth Halley in
1705, `namely in the year 1758.'
        Legerdemain! A new order of regularity in the heavens, a fresh system, as
lovely, as elegant, as unexpected as finding that the dinosaurs were wiped
out to the last man when the nucleus of an exhausted comet smote the Earth
in the year 65,000,000 BC (roughly), an instant-winter effect we very
nearly replicated, and maybe came within a hair of doing so, before the
Evil Empire corroded through, had we decided to `fight' a nuclear `war'.
        Revolution? Why, yes. Where did you suppose the word came from? Copernicus
had given everyone a nasty turn with his revelation of Revolutions of the
Heavenly Bodies, and the Renaissance took up his insight as a metaphor, the
collapse of old before the thrust of new, the power of the stars (of
course) impelling the rise of the brash and the strong. Halley's, however,
is a Counter-Revolutionary, for the fool thing swings in a reverse sense
about the Sun, counter-clockwise, heading left as we swing right, so people
in high places need have no fear. Maybe. For there are other comets (of
course). Hale-Bopp, say, in April 1997, three times as large, brighter in
the southern sky than Halley.
        Certainly Halley's owned a rich, peculiar stink of mystery: trapped in
gold and thread by Giotto and the Bayeux weavers, ripe with spores of
universal life, if astronomers Hoyle and Wickramasinghe are right, and not
just life but disease and genetic benefice, gifts of Magi and Wicked Witch
in silvery wrapping. There's more. Consider American gothic novelist John
Calvin Batchelor's troubling assessment of that singular moment of the
hairy comet:
        `Man's hunger, working in conjunction with his bizarre yen for profit, had
moved him from a fire in a cave on an antediluvian river shore eight
millennia before the birth of the Saviour, to a fire on a volcanic plain on
the moon two millennia after... The instant in time that Homo sapiens
touched lunar soil, Earthman became Spaceman, from which there is no
turning back. Good riddance to all that. Hello to high, wide, and hairy.'
        Yes, hello to Hairy Stars! As the space probe Giotto plowed on March 14,
1986, through the fourteen kilometre coma, the glowing head of Halley's,
watched by the Russian Vega craft and a Japanese mission, as it sent back
its mysterious portraits, we too entered one step further into our estate.
Masters of the Universe! Spectators, at the very least. At best: its
reworkers, its next designers, the tenants who took over the cosmos and did
it up to their own tastes.
        Nuclear winter? Global starvation? Resource depletion and entropy, a world
laid waste in the fecundity of its own most successful animal? Hell, no.
Hairy stars! Nebulae! Here's my advice: go with that kid I once was,
dreaming, in abstract love, into the encyclopaedia, as sweet a symbol as I
know for the burgeoning storehouse of human knowledge. And what we learn
will change what we know, drastically, convulsively, in ways we-- well, in
ways we cannot yet know. But we can make educated guesses. Sometimes--like
the smudgy thing I waited for during thirty years of devotion--our dreams
will prove wilder than the reality. It's the risk we run, we dreamers. But
more often than not, we see past the veil into a place (all right, call it
the future) where the prosaic and the workaday dare not step. Until
relentless time pushes them through, and they sprawl without preparation,
bruised and confused and angry. Hairy stars! Why didn't anyone warn us?


Damien Broderick

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