THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
By Joseph M. Laufer
Contrast these headlines: “STUDIES OF HALLEY’S COMET YIELD HUGE SCIENTIFIC BONANZA” (Aug. 25, 1986, Chemical and Engineering News) and ‘MILLARD FILLMORE SOCIETY NAMES HALLEY’S COMET AS THE MOST DISAPPOINTING AND NEGLIGIBLE EVENT OF 1986” (Syndicated News stories on Jan. 7 & 8, 1987).
It’s a fact, MOST of the world was disappointed by Halley’s Comet. Many of us (enthusiasts) are responsible for over-selling the comet in advance. Nevertheless, there were some winners.
Science was the biggest winner, as the article in CHEMICAL AND ENGINEERING NEWS proclaimed. “Five space probes sent past comet, together with Earth-based observations, reveal a treasure house of surprises, including a nucleus that’s larger, darker, lumpier, and warmer than anticipated.” How enthusiastic can you get?
The field of Astronomy was another big winner. Planetariums and Observatories entertained and educated record numbers of participants during 1986. Astronomy Clubs experienced record enrollments and memberships during 1985 and 1986. Educators found youngsters eager to learn more about the sky and space than at any other time in recent history.
There were, however, too many books written about Halley’s Comet. Ruth Freitag, of the Library of Congress, lists 105 Halley’s Comet books published between 1984 and 1986. This seems unbelievable – but the list speaks for itself.
A reporter recently asked me if I felt that anyone got rich on Halley’s Comet. I doubt it very much. I know for a fact that several entrepreneurs lost a great deal of money and are stuck with stacks of T-shirts, books, key chains, coins and other products. Others probably broke even, and a few made a modest profit. But overall, I doubt that there were any big financial winners. Those who claim otherwise have to be suspect, based on our experience. HCW ’86 was the first to enter the market with Comet products and at one point had the largest number of products available for sale. Its backers lost a bundle!
Some entrepreneurs lost more than money – they eroded some of their credibility and good reputation. We won’t risk a libel suit here, but we know of several individuals who employed dubious measures to capitalize on the return of Halley’s Comet.
Perhaps the one group which suffered the greatest disappointment at the 1986 return of Halley’s Comet was the one that expected the most. The Two-timers – the folks who saw the comet in 1910 in their youth and who expected to see it again in 1986 – had a difficult time with both the weather and the viewing equipment available to them. It was tough for Senior Citizens to cope with the cold weather of the Winter of ’85 and the Spring of ’86 when the comet was most visible – and with fading eyesight, among other impediments, they found it difficult to use the proper telescopes and binoculars.
It is unfortunate that we have to wait for 75 years or so to correct the mistakes made in anticipation of the return of the comet. Hopefully someone reading these words in the mid-twenty-first century will put together a coordinated plan to help all segments of the population to greet Halley’s Comet in 2061.
Was Halley’s Comet, 1986, a blast or a bust? It depends on your perspective. There were winners and losers. But those who see beyond the tinsel and the hype know that Halley’s Comet, 1986 served as a catalyst to get the world population looking backwards, forward and upward. Halley’s Comet is a visible link with past and future, and it still challenges us to probe further into the mysteries of space. This kind of success is hard to measure. But it is nevertheless success – of cosmic proportions!