On May 19, 1910, Earth passed through the fresh tail of Halley’s Comet. Spectra of the comet had found that it contained cyanogen — in the words of the New York Times, “a very deadly poison.”
Nothing bad happened.
As we at ISONblog cover the story of Comet ISON’s approach, we try to keep our focus where it belongs: on the aesthetics and science of this comet. On the way Comet ISON is a rare leftover from our solar system’s infancy. On how ISON will pass close enough to the Sun to probe the solar magnetic field. On how the massive effort to study ISON will knit together observers not just from all over the world, but from across the solar system.
This is exciting enough for us. More importantly, it’s the truth. But we recognize that there are silly, scary, embarrassingly wrong ideas — ideas that we won’t give a platform to here, although it’s super fun to Google them on your own — out there about Comet ISON.
Were it not for that whole “can’t remember the past… condemned to repeat it” thing, maybe we could dismiss this fringe response as isolated, a product of how social media brings together unscrupulous people and gullible audiences. But comet panics are nothing new. There have even been online comet panics before, with tragic consequences.
So it’s instructive to revisit Comet Halley’s close approach in 1910, which sparked the fat granddaddy — remember, Taft was president — of all comet panics.
Unlike ISON, Halley is a short-period comet. It returns to our skies about every 75 years, a fact established by its namesake Edmond Halley near the beginning of the 18th century. The buildup to its coming in 1910 was considerable: for the first time ever, astronomers could record Halley's Comet on photographic plates and study its chemical composition from spectra. What they found was at first glance alarming.
In February 1910, researchers at the Yerkes Observatory saw strong bands of cyanogen in their Halley’s Comet spectra.
Marvel Comics villain Astronomer Camille Flammarion feared the worst. According to New York Times coverage, “Prof. Flammarion is of the opinion that the cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”
If you had stopped reading there — perhaps to embrace loved ones, cherishing your last few moments together — you could be forgiven for panicking prematurely. Yet the article went on to allay fears, mentioning the “almost inconceivable rarefication” of Halley’s tail and the likelihood that the tiny amount of cyanogen present would be broken down in the Earth's upper atmosphere.
This sensible take seems representative. Overall, as Halley approached, the mainstream press did a good job assuring readers that they would in fact make it to the Roaring Twenties. As evidenced by U.S. newspapers from around the closest approach, though, the panic lasted long after respectable voices stopped fanning the flames.
Check out these headlines from the May 19 issue of the New York Times:
HALLEY’S COMET BRUSHES EARTH
WITH ITS TAIL
350 American astronomers keep vigil
Reactions of fear and prayer repeated
All night services held in many churches
1881 dire prophecies recalled by comet scare.
(Source: The Halley's Comet Watch Newsletter)
This colorful excerpt from Ian Ridpath’s A Comet Called Halley paints the wider picture:
"From Chicago it was reported that women were stopping up doors and windows to keep out the toxic vapor. In Haiti a voodoo doctor sold comet pills to ward off the evil influence of the comet, as did two swindlers in Texas who also did a good trade in leather gas masks. Purchasers were told that the pills (actually made of a harmless combination of sugar and quinine) would help them withstand the gases of the comet’s tail. Police arrested the men but were forced to let them go again when the gullible victims campaigned for their release."
And what really happened when the comet passed? This pretty photo was taken. Businesses tried to cash in on the excitement through advertisements, like the one pictured above. President Taft Halley’s Comet at the U.S. Naval Observatory, as did many, many curious members of the public in widely hosted comet parties. Then-pope Pius X saw it but was unimpressed.
Most importantly: nothing bad happened.
So while we at ISONblog are a little sad that some people are worried about ISON, we aren’t too surprised. After all, there are few things more old-fashioned than getting freaked out unnecessarily by a comet.