When people living in ancient cultures looked up, comets were the most remarkable objects in the night sky. Comets were unlike any other object in the night sky. Whereas most celestial bodies travel across the skies at regular, predictable intervals, so regular that constellations could be mapped and predicted, comets' movements have always seemed very erratic and unpredictable. This led people in many cultures to believe that the gods dictated their motions and were sending them as a message. What were the gods trying to say? Some cultures read the message by the images that they saw upon looking at the comet. For example, to some cultures the tail of the comet gave it the appearance of the head of a woman, with long flowing hair behind her. This sorrowful symbol of mourning was understood to mean the gods that had sent the comet to earth were displeased. Others thought that the elongated comet looked like a fiery sword blazing across the night sky, a traditional sign of war and death. Such a message from the gods could only mean that their wrath would soon be unleashed onto the people of the land. Such ideas struck fear into those who saw comets dart across the sky. The likeness of the comet, though, was not the only thing that inspired fear.
Although most human beings no longer cringe at the sight of a comet, they still inspire fear everywhere around the globe, from Hollywood to doomsday cults. The United States even set up the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program specifically to guard us from these "divine" dangers. However, although they were once regarded as omens of disaster, and messengers of the god(s), today a scientific approach has helped allay such concerns. It is science and reason that has led the fight against this fear since the days of the ancients. It is science and reason that has emboldened the human spirit enough to venture out and journey to a comet. It is science and reason that will unlock the secrets that they hold.
Figure 1. Types of cometary forms, illustrations from Johannes Hevelius' Cometographia (Danzig, 1668) (Scan of original and caption from Don Yeomans' Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and Folklore. Used with permission.) (View full size)
Figure 2. Woodcut showing destructive influence of a fourth century comet from Stanilaus Lubienietski's Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668) (scan of original and caption from Don Yeomans' Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and Folklore. Used with permission.) (View full size)
Figure 3. German broadside showing comets of 1680, 1682 (Halley), and 1683. The illustration shows a view of Augsburg, Germany with the comets of 1680, 1682, and 1683 in the sky. Three horsemen of the Apocalypse are in the foreground. The scene is bordered by a clock face, the numerals of which are made of bones, weapons, and instruments of torture. Each of the four corners outside the dial contains an allegorical figure with an appropriate biblical text. (Scan of original and caption from Don Yeomans' Comets: A Chronological History of Observation, Science, Myth and Folklore. Used with permission. Original provided by Adler Planetarium, Chicago) (View full size)
Figure 4. The Mawangdui silk, a 'textbook' of cometary forms and the various disasters associated with them, was compiled sometime around 300 B.C., but the knowledge it encompasses is believed to date as far back as 1500 B.C. (View full size)
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Noah Goldman first started working with Deep Impact as a student intern from the College Park Scholars program, a freshman-sophomore living-learning community at the University of Maryland. Noah has continued to work with the project working mostly on analysis but also writing articles for the website.