The Glory and Reality of Comets

The Glories of Science

A comet soars over Mission San Xavier, near Tucson. Sonoran Hyakutake, by James Scotti; used by permission of the artist.

A comet soars over Mission San Xavier, near Tucson, Arizona.
“Sonoran Hyakutake”, by James Scotti; used by the kind permission of the artist.

Sometimes science reveals stunning, overwhelming beauty.  Imagine the lacy symmetries of a snowflake.  Or the spectacular, simple-yet-complex symmetry of DNA molecules.

I tapped into this feeling in The Triumph of Tompa Lee, when Tompa discusses with the ghost of her dead mother the value of a mathematical constant an alien needs to decipher a complex equation:

 Finally, Mayfeng said, my favorite.  The glory of science is that sometimes you stumble upon something so fundamental and beautiful that you realize you’re in the presence of divinity.

“You’re already in the head of divinity, so cut the damned theological raptures.  What’s the value of the flickin’ constant?”

The value of constant O is

Maggots and cockroaches, another dramatic pause.  Tompa squeezed her eyes shut, searching for patience.  There were crades, and murderers, and who knew what else lurking in the darkness, yet this ghost played around for effect.

Pi. Mayfeng rattled out a chuckle. Isn’t that beautiful and awe inspiring?  Pi!

“Ree,” Tompa said, “she says the value of O is pi.”

The radio remained silent for several seconds.  Then Ree bleated, “O equals incomprehensibly a human fruit dessert?”

But this isn’t one of those stories about the stunning beauty of science.  Nor about yummy fruit pies.

Sorry about that.

Comets in the Human Imagination

Giotto

This story is about comets.

In ancient times, people saw the unexpected appearance of comets as portents of extraordinary occurrences.

For example, the Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone witnessed an appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1301, and it obviously made a great impression on him.  When he painted the Adoration of the Magi, he depicted a comet, not the traditional Star of Bethlehem, above the child.

Halley’s Comet in 1066 tolled the knell for King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Its depiction on the Bayeux Tapestry, being pointed out to King Harold by his worried aides (at left), is perhaps the most famous image of a comet in history.

Bayeux

Earlier, in 837, Halley’s comet was particularly spectacular, as recorded by Chinese scribes. ‘On the night of April 9 its length was more than 50 degrees. It branched into two tails . . . On the night of April 11 the length of the broom was 60 degrees. The tail was without branches and it pointed north. The Emperor summoned the Astronomer Royal and asked him the reason for these star changes.’

Comets have fired men’s imaginations all over the world. Ancient Native Americans depicted comets in their rock art.

What, then is the glorious reality that science finds behind the glorious facade of a comet?

The Reality of Comets

Comet

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, photographed by Rosetta spacecraft

Not quite so lovely, eh?

Yet fascinating  nonetheless, because this week the European spacecraft Rosetta became the first ever to catch up with a comet.  This is a landmark in a decade-long space mission that scientists hope will help unlock some of the secrets of the solar system. Eventually, a module from Rosetta will land on the comet and follow its progress toward the sun.

I plan to follow this incredible story. The landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars was fascinating, but now scientists are trying to land on some much small, rougher, and which constantly sheds dust.

If you’re interested, as well, here are a few links:

Maybe comets aren’t as beautiful as snowflakes–but they’re a whole lot rarer and harder to see up close. And just think … before now, no one, ever, in all of history, has seen a comet so close.  This is a privilege, folks.  Appreciate it!

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