Be it Halley’s comet or Covid-19 – Chaos is inevitable

The Early History of humans

Since the olden days, humans have looked up in the sky and blamed astronomical events for the unpleasant things happening to them (which was purely a coincidence). Not only this, but humans had also praised the occasions when a good thing happened after a few astronomical sightings (which was also coincidental). I am talking about the events that include sighting a comet, meteor shower or Northern lights, and even novas. In the 15th century, Pope Callixtus III excommunicated comets as an ‘Instrument of the Devil’.

In 1835-36, when Halley’s Comet arrived, people assumed that it had caused a large fire in New York and the Zulu massacre of Boers in Africa. The lack of knowledge of these sightings had caused mass hysteria and panic among the masses; some considered these as bad omens and some as good omens, while some investigated and rationally came with explanations saving the day. 



Science has always saved people from misunderstanding the situation and has brought rationality to our society. Whenever a natural phenomenon occurs which does not have a proper explanation, people start to panic. Some come up with stupid reasons, either to cause fear or to sell propaganda. Everything happened due to a lack of rational thinking, specifically the lack of science. Hence, a culture that lacks logical thinking is always prone to get ravaged by rumors. But there are situations where wrongly assumed information can travel to a society that stands strong on science and still cause chaos. It sounds ironic, but there is one such event.

A scientific revelation

Fast forward to the early 20th century, where we have laws of gravitation, magnetism, and knowledge about chemicals. We also have powerful telescopes to look up in the sky; the astronomical community was in a boom and so was the sci-fiction community. Compared to the older ages, natural events were seen in a much different way. At the end of the 19th century, a self-taught astronomer, Sir William Huggins, applied spectroscopy methods to astronomy.

He even took the first-ever photographic spectra of a comet in 1881 when comet C/1881 K1 was observed. He did pioneering work in celestial spectroscopy throughout his lifetime, building the foundations of modern astronomical spectroscopy. In layman’s terms, spectroscopy is the study of dispersed light from a source. This dispersed light tells us about the nature of matter, luminosity, speed of the object, i.e. its overall character.

A few years had passed and many people anticipated the return of Halley’s Comet (its closest approach to Earth) after 76 odd years. This time with improved technology, techniques, telescopes, and spectroscopy, everyone was ready to observe and learn about the famous Comet. This time, the hype was real, even before the Comet’s perigee, people in 1908 and 1909 began to advertise about the Comet. The media were very much interested, and there were advertisements by Ford and Pears soap featuring Halley’s Comet. This esteemed guest of ours had made its way into pop culture, and the Comet mania had begun. But soon, this mania was going to turn into fear.

The spectroscopy technique was in use regularly in the 1900s. Before the Comet was even at its perigee to Earth, observatories glimpsed the Comet with their telescopes and prepared for the day of the close call. The most important thing that scientists had done was the spectroscopy of its long tail and found out that it contained cyanogen, which is deadly for Humans. There is no evidence as to which scientist or observatory had done the spectroscopy on the tail.

After this, famous French Astronomer and ‘Sci-fiction’ writer Camille Flammarion told The New York Times that, “This cyanogen will impregnate the Earth’s Atmosphere and will snuff out all life on Earth”(Why he said this is still unclear). People after reading this statement went reckless; the fear started to grow among the masses. The New York Times also stated that “Most astronomers didn’t agree to this and nothing apocalyptic will happen to us.” People ignored this argument, and the thing that caused fear got all attention and became the talk of the towns in the west.

The ChAoS

Once the news broke out, it spread like wildfire; many bad or disastrous events that happened during that time were considered as an effect of the arrival of ‘Our Apocalyptic Dawn comet.’ After years of science telling people not to worry, the irony of this situation was that science itself brought fear. This happened only due to the spread of misinformation and the emphasis on only controversial news by the media. All the newspapers reported how this comet would cause us problems and possibly our end (different/wrong interpretations by the media existed for a long time and not just in the 21st century).

We all know that one man’s fear is another’s the source of income, so some folks scammed a lot of people into buying Anti-comet pills, which when taken will help one survive. Masks were brought by people (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) to assure that they don’t breathe the Cyanogen. In LA, comet cocktails were sold. A suit maker advertised that you should buy a nice suit before you die from the deadly Comet. In Europe, many people brought and hoarded oxygen cylinders. The list goes on and on.

Headline from Ogden standard 1910
Another scam

Many events like the death of Mark Twain, King Edward VII, and the fall of the Korean empire, were blamed on the innocent Halley’s Comet by several people.

Some newspapers also suggested that Cyanogen when mixed with hydrogen in our atmosphere will create deadly acid. In contrast, some said that the oceans will get pulled due to the gravitational effect, etc. Well, the 1900s media does resemble the 2021s press. Comet-watching parties became a fad; hotels had rooftop comet-watching parties.

People left no chance to capitalize on our guest, Halley’s comet. Meanwhile, prayers and panic went hand in hand in the European regions, people went to pray and save themselves from ‘The End.’ All the women locked the windows and doors of their houses so that the deadly cyanogen gas could not enter their places. And the heavy rains in parts of London and France just before D-day made people more anxious.

D-day of ‘The End’ 

The day of the omen arrives, surprisingly, nothing happens. Everything is as good as before. And the Comet wasn’t even visible as scientists had suggested earlier. People in the villages celebrated the following day on the occasion of their survival. Many people celebrated a victory that was never to be feared in the first place. This puts me in a line of thought as to how even 110 years later, we went through the same convey of misinformation, rumors, fear, panic, and wearing masks, hoarding goods, etc., but in the end, we made it this time too even though the threat was real.

We survived
Enjoyed reading this? Consider reading Tycho Brahe: A wonderful life!

1 Comment

  • Ok
    Posted July 29, 2022 9:12 am 0Likes

    Having read this I thought it was really informative. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!|

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