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HALLEY, 2061

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Channel: Scientific American
Categories: Astronomy   |   Science  
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The intellectual taming of comets began with Edmond Halley (with an assist from Newton) in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In the April 11, 1908, supplementary edition of Scientific American, astronomer S. I. Bailey wrote, Before Halleys time comets had been regarded as chance visitors to our solar system, except when they were looked upon as special messengers of divine wrath.

Halley used insights gleaned from Newtons Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (which he fronted Newton the cash to publish to calculate the orbits of 24 comets in total. These included the comet of 1682, which both Newton and Halley observed directly. The reason it bears Halleys name is that he used its arrival to see into its future.

Halley noticed that [comets] recorded by Appian in 1531, by [Johannes] Kepler in 1607, and by Halley himself in 1682, seemed to return after a period of seventy-five or seventy-six years, wrote astronomer J. E. Gore in a 1909 Scientific American article entitled Edmund Halley: The Man Who Dispelled Cometary Superstitions. These calculations led Halley to predict the comets return on about the end of 1758 or beginning of 1759, Gore added. Its next arrival was first glimpsed in March 1759.

Halley did not live to see his prediction borne out: he had died 17 years earlier. But he is forever immortalized for allowing us to look at these cosmic visitors as part of a system that can be observed, studied and at least partially drained of its uncertainty.

The story of Halleys Comet also offers us a warning, especially meaningful in this moment of global uncertainty. We are living amid a human-made infodemic of misinformation surrounding the novel coronavirus and the vaccines we have created to hold the pathogen at bay. It is helpful to know that even in 1910, when Halleys Comet returnedand was known to be an astronomical body orbiting in our solar systemthere were those who saw it as an agent of our civilizations demise. They were convincedthat chemicals from the comets tail would seep into our atmosphere and kill us all.

Halleys Comets warning is that sciences work is never done. No matter how much uncertainty we calculate away from our lives, there will be people who refuse those learnings and turn away from research and reason. The challenge for us as a species, as we wait with anticipation for the comets return in 40 years, is to move humanity forward collectively, despite the holdouts.

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