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Hale-Bopp Comet Madness, by Alan Hale

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Things to beware of in 1997:

Attempts to persuade you that 'these laws are neccessary'; especially 
when 'these laws' refers to laws inhibiting, retracting, or otherwise
resulting in encroachments upon personal liberties or outright attempts
to repeal constitutionally granted freedoms.


From the most recent Skeptical Inquirer:

 Hale-Bopp Comet Madness

 Most of the excitement surrounding Hale-Bopp's approach has a
 legitimate scientific and popular basis, but other aspects of the [comet]
 "comet madness" are pseudoscientific and a glaring symptom of
 scientific illiteracy.

 Alan Hale


Due to its almost unprecedented intrinsic brightness at the time of
its discovery by Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp in July 1995, Comet Hale-Bopp
has stimulated enormous scientific and popular interest. The comet has also
recently stimulated a goodly amount of irrational and pseudoscientific
speculation. Astronomer and co-discoverer Alan Hale considers the comet's
forthcoming nearest approach an opportunity for public education in
science. We invited him to put the interest surrounding Comet Hale-Bopp
into scientific perspective and to comment on the various sensational
claims accompanying it. We also publish his "An Astronomer's Personal
Statement on UFOs".
-- Kendrick Frazier, Editor


Few sights in the nighttime sky can be more awe-inspiring than that of a
bright comet. Consisting of a bright, diffuse, circular patch of light --
the head, or "coma" -- accompanied by a ghostly tail which may stretch
across a considerable span of the heavens, such objects definitely rank
among the most noticeable, and the most beautiful, of any of the celestial
phenomena we encounter. The relative rarity with which a bright comet may
appear in our skies -- about once every one to two decades, on the average
-- ensures that, when they do appear, attention is paid to them.

To our ancestors of a few centuries ago, who did not have available the
knowledge of the universe's workings that we have today, such a sight must
truly have been remarkable. More often than not, a bright comet would
almost seem to appear "out of nowhere," be visible in the skies for perhaps
two to four weeks, then disappear again "into nowhere." It was only natural
for our ancestors to associate the appearance of comets with whatever
misfortunes were occurring on Earth -- of which there is never a shortage
-- and to interpret them in line with their particular religious beliefs
and mythologies. For example, a bright comet (apparently the Great Comet of
1680) caused a handbill bearing the following text to be circulated among
the Christians in eastern Europe:

     Herewith is represented the fearful celestial phenomenon and
     other events . . . by which Almighty God terrified dear Hungary,
     and at the same time admonished Christendom to penance. . . . The
     star pointed toward Moravia, its tail toward Turkey. The star was
     very large and bright, not like fire but white like moonlight.
     The tail was curved with serpentine bends like a lightning flash.
     It was pierced by several arrows, and toward the end of the tail
     was something like a Turkish feather fan. The tail itself
     terminated in seven points directed toward Turkey. There was a
     crown over the end of the tail, while another crown surrounded by
     clouds was to be seen below the midpart of the comet. Close by
     appeared the heads of two Turks and some moon-like faces that
     were partially ball-like. . . . We are sure that the celestial
     phenomenon was a terrible New Year's admonition, the
     interpretation of which we will leave to Omniscient God, Whose
     grace gives us vigilant hearts, withdraws all miseries from our
     cottages, and Who turns the threatening arrows against the
     enemies of His church. . . .

We have learned much about these visitors in the centuries since the above
handbill was issued. In the early eighteenth century the British astronomer
Edmond Halley applied the laws of gravitation as worked out by his friend
Isaac Newton and determined that at least one comet appeared to be making
periodic visits to our skies, a supposition that was spectacularly verified
when this comet returned in 1759. Since that time, well over a hundred
other comets have been observed to make repeat appearances in our skies,
and periodic elliptical orbits have been computed for numerous others,
establishing beyond all doubt that comets are bona fide members of the
solar system, like the planets with which we are perhaps more familiar.

The advent of larger telescopes and, in the late nineteenth century,
astrophotography has revealed that comets are far more common visitors than
were first thought; up to two dozen or more may make their passages through
the inner solar system during any given year. (The overwhelming majority of
these are faint objects that require large telescopes in order to be
detected, although well-equipped and knowledgeable amateur astronomers
should be able to view two or three comets during any given clear night, on
the average.)

The physical nature of comets was a matter of much conjecture for some
time, with the most prevalent idea, proposed by American astronomer Fred
Whipple in the early 1950s, being that a comet could be described as a
"dirty snowball," a solid object composed of a mixture of water ice,
various other frozen volatile substances such as carbon monoxide, carbon
dioxide, and others, and significant amounts of interplanetary dust grains.
Recent detailed studies of comets, foremost among them being the flybys of
Halley's Comet in 1986 by the European Space Agency's Giotto spacecraft
along with several other missions, have revealed that Whipple's "dirty
snowball" model was essentially correct, with a variety of other
substances, including various organic compounds, being present within the
nuclei of comets as well. Most scientists today accept the idea that comets
are "leftovers" from the solar system's planetary formation process four
and a half billion years ago, and, as a result, comets are now intensely
scrutinized for any clues they might offer as to the physical and chemical
conditions that were prevalent at that time.

With all the knowledge about comets that we have gained during the past few
centuries, one would think that there would no longer exist any reasons to
fear these visitors into the inner solar system. Unhappily, this has not
been the case, as the twentieth century has seen its share of "comet
madness." The return of Halley's Comet in 1910 sparked much mass panic,
especially once astronomers pointed out the possibility that the earth
might pass through a portion of the comet's tail. While a comet's tail does
contain gases that might be considered "poisonous" -- cyanogen, for example
-- the material in the tail is so rarefied that it would make a good vacuum
by terrestrial standards. Although this was clearly pointed out to the
general public in 1910, it did not prevent outbreaks of hysteria from
erupting over parts of the world, nor did it prevent several enterprising
entrepreneurs from earning brief fortunes by selling "comet pills" and the
like. More recently, the appearance of Comet Kohoutek in 1973 inspired
several apocalyptic proclamations by certain religious groups, statements
which in retrospect seem even more ridiculous than they otherwise would
have in light of the comet's failure to achieve its expected brilliance.
(Comet Kohoutek, to be sure, was an exceptionally rewarding object from a
scientific perspective, even if it did disappoint the casual viewer.)

We are now seeing a resurgence of "comet madness" accompanying the
impending appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp. In some ways this object,
discovered by myself and Arizona amateur astronomer Thomas Bopp in July
1995, is unusual; its intrinsic brightness appears to be one of the highest
ever recorded for a comet, and its discovery when located well beyond the
orbit of Jupiter and over a year and a half away from its passage through
the inner solar system is almost unprecedented in the history of these
objects. Nevertheless, a seven-foot-tall human being is still a human
being, and likewise Comet Hale-Bopp, despite its apparent large size and
brightness, is no less and no more of a "dirty snowball" than are any of
the other two dozen or so comets that will pass around the sun in 1997.
Many of the chemical constituents that were detected in previous comets
have now been detected in Hale-Bopp, and the evolution of its activity
level has more or less followed the expectations that were derived from
studies of earlier comets.

Much of the "comet madness" associated with Comet Hale-Bopp focuses on the
fact that its appearance coincides rather closely with the end of the
second millennium which, despite the fact that this is an arbitrary point
in time, is being viewed by a disturbingly large segment of the public as
an omen of significant upheaval (see the article by Lee Loevinger in the
January/February Skeptical Inquirer.) Several Christian fundamentalists
have proclaimed that Hale-Bopp could be one of the "signs of the end times"
as foretold in several New Testament prophecies, and some have gone so far
as to suggest that Hale-Bopp might be the star "Wormwood" discussed in
Revelation 8:10-11. (For the record, Hale-Bopp comes nowhere near the earth
during its passage through the inner solar system; at closest approach, to
occur on March 22, 1997, the comet is 1.3 astronomical units -- 122 million
miles, or 197 million kilometers -- from our planet.) Several New Age
devotees have claimed they have found references to Comet Hale-Bopp within
the writings of Nostradamus and within various Native American legends.
Whatever the source of the "prophecy," Hale-Bopp's appearance three years
before the end of the millennium is generating an apocalyptic upswelling on
a scale rarely seen since the era epitomized by the Hungarian handbill
discussed above.

Another source of the "comet madness" centered around Hale-Bopp is tied to
the ongoing belief among a significant fraction of the public that Earth is
being visited in large numbers by extraterrestrial aliens. (As one radio
host recently and appropriately described to me, this seems to be the "new
mythology" that is replacing the older religion-based myths.) Almost from
the time of Hale-Bopp's discovery there have been claims that Hale-Bopp is
some kind of alien "mother ship" or, at the very least, is "under
intelligent control." Some of these claims have been based upon reputed
"course corrections" that the comet has allegedly undergone since its
discovery. Many of these claims have not been restricted to the tabloid
media but instead seem to have undergone widespread dissemination among the
more "mainstream" elements of the press and have consequently become fairly
widespread among the public.

Like many such pseudoscientific claims, there is an element of truth
contained within these. The "course-corrections" claim very possibly arose
from the fact that the initial calculations of Hale-Bopp's orbit, based
upon extremely limited data and labeled as "highly uncertain" when they
were published, differed in some particulars from the more definitive
orbits published subsequently. (This is not at all unusual, incidentally,
and has happened with numerous other comets.) Also, cometary orbits do
experience slight changes as a result of planetary perturbations and also
through the process of outgassing, which tends to produce tiny rocket-like
effects acting upon the comet's icy nucleus. To my knowledge, this
phenomenon, described under the term "nongravitational forces," has not yet
been observed in Hale-Bopp, although it surely must be occurring at a level
too low for us to detect at this time.

A recent incident illustrates just how widespread this belief that aliens
are associated with Hale-Bopp has become. On November 14, 1996, an observer
in Houston obtained electronic images through his telescope showing an
alleged "mysterious Saturn-like object" following the comet. That same
evening, this individual appeared as a guest on the Art Bell radio show, a
nationwide call-in program that could perhaps be charitably described as
"tabloid" radio (see Robert Sheaffer's "Psychic Vibrations" column, this
issue). There apparently was speculation on this program that the
"Saturn-like object" was in fact an alien spacecraft, four times larger
than Earth, following along behind the comet. Despite the absurd nature of
these claims, this story was picked up by several elements of the
"mainstream" press, and throughout the following day I was contacted by
numerous radio and television stations from around the country soliciting
my comments on the "mysterious spacecraft" following "your comet."

My investigation of this took me first to the World Wide Web homepage of
the Houston photographer, which contained several apocalypse-suggestive
statements about Hale-Bopp as well as numerous allegations of government
coverups and conspiracies (including references to known "fringe" writers
like Richard Hoagland and Zecharia Sitchin). These strongly suggested that
this individual was predisposed to come to "strange" conclusions about the
comet. Even more important, once I was able to examine the images in
question, and could match the surrounding star field with a photograph of
the same region of the sky taken during the course of the Palomar Sky
Survey in the early 1950s, I found that the location of the "Saturn-like
object" coincided perfectly with a bright 8th-magnitude star that the comet
just happened to be located next to on the night in question. The
"Saturn-like rings" extending from the "object" were apparently nothing
more than a diffraction effect, a common occurrence with over-exposed
stellar images on astronomical photographs. (It has also recently come to
light that the particular CCD -- charge-coupled device, an electronic
detector -- camera used to take the photographs in question is of a type
that is highly sensitive to infrared wavelengths, and that the star in
question is a red giant and consequently more luminous in the infrared than
in the visible part of the spectrum.)

Numerous other astronomers who investigated this came to the same
conclusion I did, and in an effort to redirect the flood of inquiries I was
receiving I posted the results of my explanation, along with the
appropriate photographs, on the Hale-Bopp homepage
( My explanation there apparently generated an
enormous amount of discussion on the Art Bell program and elsewhere, and
led to a large amount of surprisingly vicious "hate mail" being sent to, as well as numerous accusations that I am involved in the
"conspiracy" that is "hiding information" about Hale-Bopp. (For the record,
I continue to be an all-but-unemployed astronomer, and I have not received
a single government paycheck for any involvement I have had with this
comet!) This claim of an alien spacecraft following Hale-Bopp has refused
to die since that time, with one persistent claim being that a "famous
astrophysicist . . . affiliated with a top-ten university" has verified the
existence of this object and would announce it via a major press conference
(which has now been "imminent" for almost a month as of this writing). What
I've found most fascinating are the numerous falsehoods that are being
written about me -- for example, the claim that I have "changed my story"
and am no longer claiming that the "Saturn-like object" was a background
star, but instead am offering some other "explanation."

Although I find this entire episode of the "Saturn-like object" and all the
other pseudoscientific claims surrounding Comet Hale-Bopp quite amusing,
the fact that claims such as these receive such widespread acceptance among
large segments of the general public is not something that we scientists
and rationalists should dismiss lightly. This whole phenomenon of
"Hale-Bopp madness" strikes me as a glaring example of the scientific
illiteracy that pervades our society and that has been addressed many times
in the pages of this magazine and so eloquently by Carl Sagan in The
Demon-Haunted World. The numerous scientific and technological challenges
that our society will be faced with during the years and decades ahead are
too important and too complex to be adequately met and dealt with by a
population that cannot distinguish between legitimate science and the
pseudoscience that is so prevalent now. It is imperative that we, the
scientists and rationalists of today, diligently work toward alleviating
this scientific illiteracy, a quest that has become even more important due
to the recent losses of such prominent voices for rationalism as Isaac
Asimov and Carl Sagan.

Fortunately, I believe that Comet Hale-Bopp provides a unique and perhaps
unprecedented opportunity to work toward this goal. The comet is already
attracting an enormous amount of attention from the nonscientific world,
and this can only be expected to increase as it makes its passage through
the inner solar system during the coming few months. (At this writing the
comet is continuing to brighten more or less "as it should," and thus the
prospects for a spectacular display continue to be encouraging, although
one should keep in mind that a Kohoutek-like performance is still very much
within the realm of possibility.)

When Hale-Bopp is brightest, it should be easily visible to the unaided eye
of anyone in the world, and at that time perhaps the best thing we can do
is to encourage everyone simply to look! I have challenged numerous
"believers" of an extraterrestrial object following Hale-Bopp not to take
my word for anything, but to go out and look at the comet for themselves
and see if there is indeed any "object" accompanying it. (As I write this,
the comet is slightly beyond the orbit of Mars, and already any spacecraft
"four times larger than Earth" would be among the brightest objects in the
nighttime sky.)

And while we're at it, let's encourage those who are gazing cometward to
take a few moments to look at some of the other wonders of the universe
around us and point out to them that there is far more to be in awe of in
the real world than there could ever be in the pseudoscience we are
encountering today. Recently, on a radio talk show where I had asserted
that there is no spacecraft following Hale-Bopp and that if any listeners
doubted me they should go look at the comet for themselves, the program's
host told me that I was "taking all the fun out of this." Hale-Bopp is an
opportunity to show our fellow citizens of Earth that the pursuit of
knowledge of the real world and universe around us is far more "fun" than
pseudoscience could ever be.


About the Author

Astronomer Alan Hale is co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp and director of
the Southwest Institute for Space Research, Cloudcroft, NM 88317. His book
Everybody's Comet: A Layman's Guide to Comet Hale-Bopp (High-Lonesome Books
of Silver City, New Mexico) has just gone into a second printing.

Next: Comet Hale-Bopp and its 'Mysterious Unidentified Companions'