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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'