Bad Astronomy, circa 1910

By Phil Plait | May 11, 2010 7:27 am

In April, I wrote about David Friedman of Ironic Sans, who has started a new blog called Sunday Magazine, where he scans in and talks about old New York Times Sunday Magazines from a century ago. It’s a weirdly engaging thing to do, and gives us a slice of what life was like back then.

This week he has another astronomy-related article: in the May 8, 1910 issue of the magazine, writer Mary Proctor debunks fears that Halley’s Comet would destroy life on Earth.


I strongly urge you to read the whole article. It has a very familiar ring to it… because it reads very much like every single cosmic doomsday rumor ever since. It’s all there: people making wild claims, exaggerated rumors of destruction with nebulous origins, scared schoolchildren, a complete lack of memory of the last time something like this happened, and so on.

I went through this exact exercise in the months leading up to May 2003, when rumors spread over the net and on late night radio shows about Planet X wiping out life on Earth. And in 2000, when an alignment of the planets didn’t wipe us out. And in 2008 when asteroid 2007TU24 missed us — that one got so bad and so dumb I had to make a lengthy video debunking it.

So at first I read the 1910 article about Halley with some amusement… but after a minute or two I’ll admit it turned into, well, not despair exactly, but certainly frustration. There are many evils in human nature, but two of the most pernicious are willful ignorance and the desire of some to profit from that ignorance. People ignore science and reality until it comes up to bite them on the backside. In a lot of cases it’s forgivable; children who haven’t yet been taught science, people who’ve never been exposed to it, and so on. But the flip side is the purposeful downplaying of science, which we’ve seen quite glaringly in the past few decades.

As to the people who try to profit off such ignorance — doomsday video and book writers, politicians pushing their own agendas, and so on — there is no circle of Hell deep enough for them.

But ignorance and profiteering will always be with us, and they are sadly promulgated by that third great weakness: short memory spans. A lot of people were scared by the 2003 Planet X nonsense, and the May 2000 alignment of the planets before that. These things make the news right up until they don’t happen… and then are forgotten within days. Who will remember December 2012 by the year 2015?

I hate it, but I suppose I can think of it as job security.

I may have felt frustration after reading that article, but I also felt my resolve strengthen. There are lots of people out there willing to fight the nonsense, and together we are mighty. Doomsday scares will always come and go — some will even become major religions, no doubt — and what this 1910 article says most clearly is that we must always be vigilant against them.


Comments (18)

Links to this Post

  1. Twee maal de Komeet van Halley | Astroblogs | May 11, 2010
  1. The cycle of willful ignorance will continue. No matter how much education we provide, no matter how many blogs and articles and books we publish, the willfully-ignorant will drown us out, because they appeal to people’s emotions, whereas we are trying to stimulate their minds.

    People are inherently lazy. It is much easier to believe something weird and scary than it is to use critical thinking.

    Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying — I just keep my expectations low. :)

  2. Paul

    This has all happened before, and it will all happen again!

  3. Donnie B.

    Not really relevant to the BA’s point, but… wouldn’t it be awesome to have a dozen comets in the sky at once, as in that illustration?

    (Yes, I know they couldn’t look exactly like that, with tails every which way, but still…)

  4. Amanda

    This is sad and familiar, too. From the article: “Astronomers are being suspected as conspiring together to keep the uninitiated in ignorance of the true fate awaiting our planet.”

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    The more things change the more they stay the same ..

    .. & even this cliche has previously and will again be said, ad infinitum. ūüėČ

  6. Trebuchet

    Mary Proctor must have been a pretty remarkable woman — one who, at the time the article was written, was not even allowed to vote! It’s a great article; if you haven’t downloaded the PDF to read the whole thing be sure to do so.

  7. Plutonian

    @3. Donnie B. Says:

    Not really relevant to the BA’s point, but… wouldn’t it be awesome to have a dozen comets in the sky at once, as in that illustration? (Yes, I know they couldn’t look exactly like that, with tails every which way, but still…)

    Awesome – yes – but given that number of bright comets I think we’d have cause to be *seriously* worried about why they are there & the suddenly much higher liklihood of one of them hitting our Earth & causing a mass extinction event.

  8. JohnK

    My grandmother lived through both the 1910 and 1986 apperances.

  9. JohnK


    Mary Proctor may have had the right to vote. Some states granted women full and partial voting rights years before the 19th amendment (1920).

  10. DigitalAxis

    So THAT’S what the Golden Age Bad Astronomer was like.

  11. jcm

    “Planet X”. Reminds me of Planet Nibiru. Although, if one is in the woo business, amnesia is a “good” thing.

  12. What’s the chance of this sort of article actually making it past the editors sensationalist desk and into the pages of a modern newspaper?

  13. csrster

    Mary Proctor was a shill for Big Astro!

  14. mike burkhart

    Well comets were in ancent times seen as omens of disaster.In the movie Lifeforce an alien ship is found in orbit around Halleys comet the aliens are vampires that suck life energy (not blood) from victims .There is speculation that these aliens were the sorce of the vampire myth. Another example of portraying comets as bad.

  15. Gary Ansorge

    Comets were so scary because they were (wait for it),,,hairy. Just as we seem to have a built in anxiety response to “hairy” spiders and, of course, hairy werewolves.

    They weren’t always seen as portents of disaster but rather as portents of dramatic change, which is enough to make most people nervous(remember that old Chinese curse?).

    ,,,and of course, today we have the most rapid change in our social structures every experienced by humans. Is the conservative backlash therefore any wonder?

    Alvin B. Toffler was right on. Future shock. It’s here. As a SciFi reader for nearly six decades, future shock is no problem. I’ve had plenty of time to consider thousands of possible futures and I STILL don’t have my personal jet pack.


    The future. It’s so dang SLOW arriving.

    Gary 7

  16. jgreenberg

    This blog: has some excellent historical tech content as well.

  17. gruebait

    “[…] I suppose I can think of it as job security.”

    Well, there ya go. More profiteering!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar