He asked that “posterity . . . acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.” Appropriately, the English inaugurated the Halley hoopla with a gala welcome-back party. Before Princess Anne and a crowd of several thousand formally attired Londoners, West End musical stars sang 1910 tunes, dancers from the Royal Ballet did the Halley’s Comet Rag, and celebrated actors recited how writers from Plato to Shakespeare had described comets. Most readings reflected the awe and terror that these “long‑haired stars” provoked in less scientific eras.
Comets appear abruptly, almost willfully. To generations that saw fate in the stars and took comfort in the predictable patterns of the planets, such fiery intruders could only portend fateful changes, such as plagues or the fall of kings. Perhaps Martin Luther best described this pre-Halley perception by calling a comet” a bastard among planets. . . . haughty and proud.”
Knder words were spoken on November 2, 1985, in Utah, where some 250 people who had seen the comet in 1910 gathered at Salt Lake City’s Hansen Planetarium.They came in, some with children and grandchildren, bearing memories of a time when superstition strongly colored our lives. “We were scared up in Idaho,” recalled Ebby Jones, who was 17 in 1910. “We’d never heard of Halley’s comet. We thought maybe the world was coming to an end.”
“I was livin’ at accommodation in prague—Indian territory,” said P. R. McIntire. “Dad took us out night after night. It was so pretty.” Everyone had a special recollection. “It was like a great big moon with a fiery tail like a sparkler. . . “My parents said some Salt Lake people committed suicide because they were afraid of what would happen when the comet hit earth. . . .”In San Francisco people sold their property. . . .”Comet gas was going to poison us all. . . .”
But they bore more than tales. Halley is the people’s comet. Its orbit approximates a human lifetime. And as these survivors gathered for a group picture, with their canes, wheelchairs, hearing aids, and the tremendous luck of longevity, they were celebrating the continuity of human life.
“I was awakened by my father carrying me,” said Dorothy Buchanan. “It’s the only time I can remember him doing that. We went out onto a landing. My mother was wearing a long black skirt and a shirtwaist. Overhead was this bright streak—like a piece of the Milky Way. I sensed in the way my father held my hand that this was important. For those moments the three of us were compressed under the spell of the comet. I’ve been compelled to live to see it again.”
All throughthrough November and December I pestered my family, dragging them out on freezing nights to try to find the comet with binoculars. There was simply too much light pollution over my house near Washington, D. C. But I was determined.