Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sir Edmond and Sally

I was peeking in on an astronomy blog discussion recently when a comment brought me to a skidding stop. If my brain could make that sound of a needle scritching across a record, it would have.

Someone lamented that Comet Pan-STARRS had turned out to be kind of a dud. Someone else replied that there was still hope Comet ISON could be pretty spectacular later this year, but early observation suggested it might be less showy than expected, too. And then someone said:

"At least I'll be around for the next appearance of Halley's Comet."

And that's what brought me up short. Because barring extraordinary luck or some breakthrough in human longevity ...

I won't.

Damn punk kids.

Halley's last passed through the inner solar system in 1986. Its period is about 75 years, putting its next pass in 2061. I'll be 101. Although the comet wasn't very impressive in '86, owing to the geometry of our respective orbits at the time, I understand it's expected to put on a good show next time.

Comets had been inexplicable one-off apparitions until Sir Edmond Halley calculated his namesake's orbit and realized "Hey, this sucker's been here before!" Halley's fame was made, and his iceball became THE quintessential comet, when he correctly predicted it would return in 1758, 16 years after his death. Of course, once you realize you're dealing with a regular guest, you can dig through history and find records of its visits in worldwide media as diverse as the Bayeux Tapestry (appearance of AD 1066) and a Babylonian clay tablet (164 BC).

"Oh, it's you again."

Comet Halley also strikes a cultural chord because its period is just about the length of a human life. Mark Twain was famously born when Halley's appeared in 1835 and died when it returned in 1910. For most, it's literally a once-in-a-lifetime event.

In 1986 I'd graduated from college but still lived nearby and had the keys to the campus observatory, which I'd helped run while a student (just between us I still have the keys, though I figure by now they must have changed the locks). My university's observatory was poorly located atop a five-story building in the center of campus--next to which they then constructed a six-story building, blocking the view of a good chunk of sky--but it was a neat little facility at which real research could be done.

The comet was due to be especially well positioned on one particular night. So on that night I took my keys, circumventing the university's process for reserving the observatory, and set off for the roof. I assumed I'd be alone but arrived to find a small group already there. Quiet. Almost reverent. There in the little round cinderblock building were my old professor mentor and half a dozen people, all of whom I knew from my college days. Hadn't seen some of them in three or four years. As far as I know, nothing had been planned. Everyone just showed up, gravitationally drawn to meet in that place on that night. No one seemed the least surprised to see me unlock the door with my unauthorized keys and join the party.

That was special.

Many of my blog posts get written because two or more notions collide in my brain to spark something interesting. As documented in past posts, I've spent the last couple of weeks refurbishing my office/studio, and as part of that process cleaned up my bulletin board. At the top of my old board I kept pinned for nearly 30 years what could be my favorite "Peanuts" comic ever, from October 18, 1985. It nearly disintegrated in my hands, but remained intact enough for me to scan it:

Man, that's a dark comic. Bleak! That punk kid on the astronomy blog is Sally Brown and I am Sally Brown's teacher. Anyone born in the early Eighties has a decent chance of catching Halley's Comet twice. I had one shot at it, and am glad I made the most of it.


Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

I somehow missed that cartoon. Ha! I think one of the many reasons Peanuts was such a hit was the cynicism and poignancy that often lurked behind the cuteness.
(Glad you were able to spot Halley's comet when it flew by. I saw it too, but only because I was away from the city one night and knew where to look.)

Jim O'Kane said...

Speak for yourself, old man. 101-year-old me will be watching from the roof of my retirement palace, high in the Rockies. And I'll stick around for the next cycle, too -- albeit as a brain and eyestalks floating in a nutrient soup onboard the Webb Telescope 5.0.

Brian Fies said...

Namowal, somehow I thought you were younger than that. Peanuts was often sweetly dark, and this one just struck me as particularly morbid. I laughed for days.

Jim, your retirement plan sounds only slightly more plausible than mine ("Step One: Win Lottery") but best of luck with it. Save me a seat on the roof (or the nearest nutrient jar).

ronnie said...

I'll be 96. Of course, but for the Canadian health care system, I'd be dead about 20 years ago, give or take, so if I make it, it'll be a pretty incredible run.

Brian Fies said...

Ronnie, if you get a peek at Halley's, remember me. And vice versa.


I'm honestly not sure how much I can promise since I'll be really really old. Good faith effort, though.

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

Thanks, Brian.
I wish I was somewhat younger, but I turn 45 this year. Excuse me while I shoo some kids off the lawn. ;)

Sherwood Harrington said...

I always get a chuckle out of the use of Halley's Comet as a rough actuarial tool, since Sir Edmond himself was one of the founders of modern actuarial science.

Brian Fies said...

Ah. I did not know that! /carson

Sherwood Harrington said...

Then here's another thing you might not have known about Halley, Johnny -- something that proves that he wasn't just a smart guy, he was a clever one, too. A fellow member of the Royal Society mentioned to him once what a difficult problem it was to measure the total land area of Great Britain, given the very irregular nature of the islands' coastlines. Halley solved that one in an afternoon using a very accurate map, a balance scale, and a pair of scissors. Pretty obvious when you think about it, but nobody had thought of it before, evidently.

Brian Fies said...

That one I DID know, although before you reminded me I'd've been hard-pressed to tell you it was Halley. I've used his technique myself, both in a chemistry lab and civilian life (calculating how much bark I needed to cover a big oddly shaped dirt patch, as I recall). Easier than calculus or Fourier analysis.

Unknown said...

I'll only be 100 when it comes again. My fiancé will be 99. Looks like an idea to plan for, because I missed it in 1985....