May 19 – Anniversary of a Cosmic Non-collision

Posted May 19, 2015

Actually, every day of the year, we could celebrate cosmic non-collisions, because space is huge and collisions large enough to get excited about are pretty rare.

But in 1910, astronomers predicted that the Earth was going to pass through the tail of Halley's comet for six hours on May 19.

And although most astronomers assured people that the comet's tail was very thin, very rarefied – a bit of gas and dust blown out by the solar wind for millions of miles – there was one astronomer who said something a little bit different:

He suggested that the comet's tail, which spectrographs had shown contained cyanogen, might poison all life on the planet!

The astronomer who made that scary prediction was Camille Flammarion. In his lifetime, he made a lot of suggestions and held a lot of beliefs that weren't backed by any evidence. For example, he wrote that dwellers on Mars had tried to communicate with the Earth in the past; he believed that human souls (and alien souls, too!) were reincarnated on many different planets, in the bodies of many different sorts of creatures; he believed in telepathy. And yet, Flammarion did seem to honor evidence and the scientific method. He studied mediums and seances, apparently very open to the possibility that these were ways of contacting souls of the dearly departed, but he concluded that all mediums cheat.

At any rate, thanks to Flammarion's cyanogen-snuffing-out-life-on-Earth pronouncement, a lot of people panicked. Many people spent money on trying to survive the comet tail; they bought gas masks and anti-comet pills and even anti-comet umbrellas! Some people feared that the tail would bring deadly influenza, rather than poison gas, and some farmers neglected to plant their crops, and some people neglected to do their own work, as these people prepared for the end of the world.

(By the way, I'm not sure that surviving the comet tail would be such a good idea, if the rest of life on Earth died. I mean, unless people were going to purchase tiny gas masks for every leaf on local apple trees, and anti-comet umbrellas for every corn plant, and so forth – wouldn't it be better to die along with everything else than to slowly starve to death?)

Once the day came, and Earth passed through Halley's tail, of course nothing happened.

Well, nothing detectable happened to the Earth's lower atmosphere or to all the various lifeforms. But people created some havoc, for sure. Four different people contacted Flammarion to report smelling some disturbing odors—the smell of burning vegetables, one person claimed, or a marshy or chemical smell, according to others. In China, some people wouldn't go outside for half a day, and they wouldn't drink water in case it had been poisoned by the comet's “vapors.” People in Tennessee waited with their prophet for the end of the world, at noon, and a preacher in Pennsylvania filled his congregation with terror about the destruction the comet was bringing.

By the way, in case you are wondering, the world didn't end.

The next day, people read that a religious group in Oklahoma, the so-called “Sacred Followers,” had attempted to sacrifice a virgin in order to save the Earth. They also read that, thankfully, the police stopped them! – But nowadays scholars think that, despite the newspaper story, this didn't actually happen.

So today is the anniversary of “– Excitement! - Danger! - Cosmic Catastrophe! - oh, wait, never mind!”

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