Comets

“Comets are long-haired stars with flames, appearing suddenly, and presaging a change in sovereignty, or plague, or war, or winds or floods.”
Northumberland Bede, De Natura Rerum c. 725AD

Ancient Beliefs

The word comet comes from the Greek word kometes which means ‘long hair’.  Our ancestors thought comets were stars with hair trailing behind them.

In ancient times, people thought comets were ‘power rays’ of supernatural beings.  They also thought that comets contained fire because they were so bright in the sky.

Some people believed comets brought curses with them.  They believed that comets caused cattle to give birth to dead calves, princes to die,  natural disasters to occur, and disease and pestilence to spread across the land.  Emperor Nero of Rome had all possible successors to his throne executed in order to save him from the ‘curse of the comet’.

Not all people believed comets were bad omens; some believed they brought good fortune.  Others believed that they carried angels through the heavens.

Not so ancient beliefs …

In 1909 and 1910, the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the skies caused panic in cities around the world. Pedlars did a lot of  business selling ‘anti-comet sickness pills’ and umbrellas to protect people from the effects of the comet.

In March 1997, the members of a cult called ‘Heaven’s Gate’ committed suicide by drinking a cocktail of poisons.  They believed that the coming of comet Hale-Bopp was a sign that it was time for them to shed their Earthly bodies so that their spirits would take flight behind the comet and so be taken to a higher plane of existence.

More about Comet Hysteria can be found here.

Halley’s Comet

The Chinese recorded sightings of Halley’s Comet as far back as 240BC.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry shows Halley’s comet shining brightly in the sky before the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Some people believed that the comet meant that King Harold of England would lose his throne to Duke William of Normandy in this battle, and he did!

Edmund Halley studied comets and developed a theory that the comets sighted in 1531, 1607 and 1682 were actually the same comet.  He successfully predicted the return of this comet in 1758, but sadly died 16 years before his prediction was proved correct.  Halley’s Comet is next due to return in 2061.

Other Cometary Scientists

In 1577, Tycho Brahe showed that comets travelled far beyond the Moon; prior to this, people believed comets travelled in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) discovered that comets travel in elliptical orbits around the Sun.  He also believed comets were members of the Solar System, like the planets, and that comets could return again and again – he was right!  Comets that are seen quite often, every 100 years or so, come from the Kuiper Belt.  Comets that we only see every few thousand years come from the Oort Cloud.

Meteor Showers

Comets leave a trail of debris behind them as they orbit the Sun.  If this trail crosses the Earth’s orbit, then at that point every year for a long time there will be a meteor shower.

The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year between the 9th and 13th of August as the Earth passes through the debris of the Swift-Tuttle comet.  The Orionid meteor shower occurs in October when the Earth passes through debris left by Halley’s Comet.  The Leonids, around 18th November, result from debris from comet Tempel-Tuttle which visits the inner Solar System every 33 years.

Hale-Bopp

On July 23, 1995, an unusually large and bright comet was seen outside of Jupiter’s orbit by Alan Hale of New Mexico and Thomas Bopp of Arizona. Careful analysis of Hubble Space Telescope images suggested that its intense brightness was due to its exceptionally large size. While the nuclei of most comets are about 1.6 to 3.2 km (1 to 2 miles) across, Hale-Bopp’s was estimated to be 40 km (25 miles) across. It was visible even through bright city skies, and may have been the most viewed comet in recorded history. Comet Hale-Bopp holds the record for the longest period of naked-eye visibility: an astonishing 19 months. It will not appear again for another 2,400 years.

Swift-Tuttle

This comet was first seen in July 1862 by American astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. As Comet Swift-Tuttle moves closer to the Sun every 120 years, it leaves behind a trail of dust debris that provides the ingredients for a spectacular fireworks display seen in July and August. As Earth passes through the remnants of this dust tail, we can see on a clear night the Perseid meteor shower. Comet Swift-Tuttle is noted as the comet some scientists predicted could one day collide with Earth because the two orbits closely intercept each other. The latest calculations show that it will pass a comfortable 24 million km (15 million miles) from Earth on its next trip to the inner Solar System.

Hyakutake

On January 30, 1996, Yuji Hyakutake (pronounced “hyah-koo-tah-kay”), an amateur astronomer from southern Japan, discovered a new comet using a pair of binoculars. In the spring of that year, this small, bright comet with a nucleus of 1.6 to 3.2 km (1 to 2 miles) made a close flyby of Earth — sporting one of the longest tails ever observed. The Hubble Space Telescope studied the nucleus of this comet in great detail. This is not Comet Hyakutake’s first visit to the inner Solar System. Astronomers have calculated its orbit and believe it was here about 8,000 years ago. Its orbit will not bring it near the Sun again for about 14,000 years.

Some interesting websites about comets and myth.

Comet Mythology from Astrononmy-Education.com

Comets, Meteors & Myth: New Evidence for Toppled Civilizations and Biblical TalesThis is an interesting article from space.com.

Harvest Moon

The Harvest Moon is the Full Moon closest, either before or after, the Autumnal Equinox.  This year, there is a Full Moon on the day of the Equinox, 23rd September 2010.

All full moons rise around the time of sunset. However, although in general the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day, as it moves in orbit around Earth, the Harvest Moon and Hunter’s Moon are special, because around the time of these full moons, the time difference between moonrise on successive evenings is shorter than usual which means that the moon rises approximately 30 minutes later, from one night to the next, as seen from about 40 degrees N. or S. latitude, for several evenings around the full Hunter’s or Harvest Moons. Thus there is no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise around the time following these full moons. In times past this feature of these autumn moons was said to help farmers working to bring in their crops (or, in the case of the Hunter’s Moon, hunters tracking their prey). They could continue being productive by moonlight even after the sun had set. Hence the name Harvest Moon. The reason for the shorter-than-usual rising time between successive moonrises around the time of the Harvest and Hunter’s Moon is that the ecliptic—the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun—makes a narrow angle with respect to the horizon in the evening in autumn.

Often, the Harvest Moon seems to be bigger or brighter or more colorful than other full moons. These effects are related to the seasonal tilt of the earth. The warm color of the moon shortly after it rises is caused by light from the moon passing through a greater amount of atmospheric particles than when the moon is overhead. The atmosphere scatters the bluish component of moonlight (which is really reflected white light from the sun), but allows the reddish component of the light to travel a straighter path to one’s eyes. Hence all celestial bodies look reddish when they are low in the sky.

The apparent larger size is because the brain perceives a low-hanging moon to be larger than one that’s high in the sky. This is known as a Moon Illusion and it can be seen with any full moon. It can also be seen with constellations; in other words, a constellation viewed low in the sky will appear bigger than when it is high in the sky. [1]

Of course, I couldn’t leave this little bit of research without Neil Young singing ‘Harvest Moon’, could I?

  1. Wikipedia

Pen vs Paper and States of Mind.

Pen vs Paper

I find it so much easier to think and/or let my thoughts flow when using a pen and paper! I like to think of myself as fairly computer-literate, I touch type a fair number of words a minute, yet words/ideas/thoughts never seem to flow quite as easily via the keyboard as via the pen.

I wonder how many other people are the same? Is it an age-related thing? Is it something that you can get over?  Is it something that one should want to get over?

I also find art programs don’t suit me either – nothing replaces the feel of pencil/pen/brush on paper for art or the materials being used. Digital art is not for me.

Luddite? Me? I don’t think so.  I mean, I can use computers to create certain kinds of things without first writing them down or planning them out, but there are other things I like to do with words that just don’t seem to work smoothly or easily with a keyboard as compared to a pen.  The prime example of this being the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing that appears in my journal, that helps me sort though an issue, a problem, perhaps through connecting with the subconscious (unconscious?) level of the mind.  Somehow, this  just doesn’t flow quite the same way when I use a keyboard.

My preference for pen and paper when I journal my thoughts is likely to make it an ‘interesting’ challenge for me to keep a blog!

States of Mind

Yesterday I spent a while meandering through the tangled paths of the weird world web looking for reputable information on the conscious, unconscious, subconscious and super-conscious states of mind.

Naturally some of the paths led to fluffy-bunny inhabited places, but more led to places of what seemed like erudite learning, with good references to back up their information.

It seems that the ‘subconscious’ does not exist, not psychologically speaking; it is a term mostly used by New Age aficionados.  The super-conscious seems to be another term bandied around by the same community.

Of course, the term ‘subconscious’ has entered into everyday usage, especially when we grope for a memory or do/say something without thinking, or remember something we didn’t think we’d taken notice of.

It’s all something I need to find out more about, read up on the psychology, try to find my way through all the New-Agey type stuff and see what seems to make sense, and, despite what hard science and total cynics say, and reach a conclusion that sits well with myself. Which isn’t easy as I’m a bit of an odd mix between scientist, artist, creative person and a spiritual person too!

I know science doesn’t have the answers for everything, that it is only one way of viewing how the Universe works, that there are things about the Universe we can’t put into test-tubes or analytical machines and measure or prove scientifically, especially consciousness.

I like to keep an open mind, question claims that are made and experiences I have had, and certainly read what is written with not just a pinch of salt but a huge sack-full of the stuff!  I like to see references to published work, and in those published works other references, especially when, say, someone claims that their book is about Anglo-Saxon beliefs yet they don’t even reference a single academic source!

I certainly like the idea of, and believe there are, mysteries that science can’t fully explain.  It seems like each time science makes a step forward to understanding life, the universe and everything (see the BBC’s h2g2 site or BBC’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or even Douglas Adams for my favourite answer to this eternal question), then it uncovers something else that can’t be understood yet. I wonder if it is like peeling back the layers of an infinite number of onions, each with an infinite number of layers!  And of course those are just the scientific onions, there’s the philosophical ones, the spiritual ones, and no doubt many others too.

I wonder if science and spirituality will ever converge…