Apocalyptic scare stories have probably been around for as long as people have had the time to sit about making them up. They might be caused by anything from the general awfulness of humans to an unforeseen computer glitch. The earliest reference I could find comes from an Assyrian clay tablet that dates from around 2800 BC. It has this to say:
“Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”
Sound familiar? Humanity has been clearly on a downward trajectory for around five thousand years. So it really is quite remarkable that we’re all still here. I’ve mentioned a few apocalyptic visionaries over the course of the last ten months and none of them have done very well out of it. Yet still they keep coming. Today I want to tell you about something that didn’t happen on this day in 1910. On this day no one was poisoned by Halley’s Comet. This will of course, come as no surprise to you. But it was once a genuine concern for quite a lot of people.
Halley’s comet is named after Sir Edmund Halley who was first able to successfully predict its return in 1758, using his friend Isaac Newton’s newly discovered laws of gravity and by searching historical records. Now that we know the comet returns regularly, every seventy-five years or so, we can see that it has heralded several significant events. It appeared just before the Battle of Hastings and features on the Bayeaux Tapestry. William the Conqueror took it as a sign of his victory. Maybe King Harold thought the same thing, I don’t know, history is written by the victors. The appearance of the comet in 1222, heading westward across the sky, may have encouraged Genghis Khan to follow in its wake and invade Europe. Perhaps the comet was the original Star of Bethlehem. Even if it wasn’t, its appearance in 1301 probably inspired this painting of the nativity by Giotto di Bondone.
In 1910 the comet was predicted to come so close to the Earth that our planet would actually pass through its tail. By then, scientists were able to make a spectroscopic analysis of the comet. They concluded that one of the substances present in the comet’s tail was a poisonous gas called cyanogen. An astronomer, named Camille Flammarion, told everyone he thought that the gas would extinguish all life on Earth. Other astronomers were quick to disagree, but it was too late. Churches held all night vigils. People panic bought every gas mask they could find. They stopped up their doors and windows in an effort to keep the gas out. In Rome, people panic bought oxygen so they could keep themselves alive until the earth passed through the comet’s poisonous tail. In the months leading up to the event it was possible to buy anti-comet umbrellas, even anti-comet pills that were supposed to provide protection from the worst of the radiation. Of course, no one died of comet poisoning. Some people were arrested for cashing in and selling worthless sugar pills, but were not charged, as their victims actually campaigned for their release. Flammarion still insisted though, that he had been able to smell the gas in the comet’s tail. He said it smelled of burning vegetables, or a marsh , or of acetylene.
The poisonous gas was not the only thing people were worried about back in 1910. There was a person who wrote to the Royal observatory who was concerned that the comet would cause the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to swap places, flooding the Americas and the Sahara desert. Apparently an unspecified shepherd in Washington State went mad in an unspecified way. I did try to research this, but all I came up with was a report that six people in Washington had been arrested after they went a bit comet-happy and a picture of a German Shepherd dog in a gas mask. But then there was a gold prospector in Southern California named Sam. He thought that the comet had been sent by God to punish mankind. Sam sought atonement in suffering. He set up a cross at the entrance to his mine and began to nail himself to it. He nailed both of his feet and one of his hands, but then he had a bit of a problem. He begged his fellow miners to nail up his remaining hand, but no one would help him. Instead, they pulled out the other nails and packed him off to hospital for a bit of a rest.
Two year’s later, an astronomer named Sze zuk Chang Chin-liang, began to worry, somewhat belatedly, that the comet might be a transparent object. He thought that it had no tail at all, and that what we could see were the sun’s rays shining through it. His problem was, that it might act a bit like a magnifying glass and focus the rays from the sun on our planet and burn us all up. Halley’s Comet is due to return in 2061. So far, no one seems to have suggested that it will kill us all. But I predict that someone will.