Everything there is to say about seeing comets


This is a good time to share tips with people about how to spot comets. You might protest there’s no visible comets in the sky. We had NEOWISE hanging out there for a couple weeks. That there’s no comet to see is no reason you can’t try anyway. Most of the time there’s no comet anyway. Every couple years the world’s astronomers all feel lonely. So they go telling people, “Oh, hey, comet D/2495 Q1 Rococo-Compsognathus is passing by the sun for the first time since Pangaea was a thing! The vapor trail will wrap over a thousand degrees of sky, looping almost three times from horizon to horizon! At its peak it could be up to 36 times as bright as setting your face on fire!” That “up to” covers a lot of possibilities.

Then they find a field or the top of a building, scatter some telescopes around, and wait for the crowds to come rolling in. I’m not saying it’s a sinister conspiracy. At heart, it’s a conspiracy to get strangers to ask them about their Cassegrain reflector. They’ve spent a lot of time learning the word “catadioptric” and you understand their wanting to do something with it. The word means “cat of the day of the ptrics”. The day of ptrics is April Fool’s or Halloween, depending on context.

Astronomers can’t help explaining things like this. They grew up as nerds. And as nerds, we hated being in school. We liked the learning part. It’s just we hated having to be around other people teaching stuff. This is why now that we’re out of it, we spend all our time teaching other people stuff. This is also why nerds are always angry with each other over declarations of things like “this was a good episode of a TV show”.

In principle there’s just a few things you need to study the night sky, among them:

1. Night.
2. Sky.
3. You (very important).

The ‘sky’ and the ‘you’ are pretty easy for you to come up with. The night could be hard. You can tell it’s night by how vividly you remember every relationship you ever screwed up by saying one wrong thing.

To get to see anything in the sky you’ll want a good dark area. This can be found by going into the basement without turning on the lights, but there are house centipedes down there. Out to the field it is, then! This is a good way to discover how badly your town is light-polluted. There’s an excellent chance that ten miles outside of town you can still read this week’s updated privacy policy from your Discover card.

What you want is a good quality dark, but that’s hard to come by. The great dark mines of the upper midwest were exhausted by the 1920s and we’ve had to make do with reclaimed and processed dark since then. Really it’s easier to go gather around the astronomers and let them ask you if you can name the nearest star to Earth. This takes you to the astronomers, yes, but they know where it’s dark enough you can’t see the bats.

Out in the field you get to see families who aren’t particularly amateur astronomers, trying hard to get anyone else to look at the same thing. “Do you see that star?” “The red one?” “Stars aren’t red!” “Then why is it red?” “You must be looking at an airplane.” “One of those famous stationary airplanes you see all the time.” Tempers grow short. You get packs of people, one pointing up at a tree. “Look! Is that Cassiopeia?” “YOU’RE Cassiopeia!” responds someone who’s fed up with how much fun everyone else had learning there’s a constellation called Puppis, the Poop Deck. Someone in the group has a solid memory that you just “arc to Arcturus”, but not where you arc from or why you want Arcturus in the first place. You want Arcturus because it’s the most prominent star in the constellation of Arctoo. The astronomers could explain that, if you don’t accidentally get them explaining what a Dobsonian telescope is. It is a telescope made by Dob and Sons, of Telescope Alley in London.

Anyway the most amazing thing you can learn is that there are obsolete constellations, just like if stars were recorded on VHS tapes or something. Also that one was called Turdus Solitarius as if astronomers weren’t all twelve-year-old boys.

Statistics Saturday: Visible Comets Of My Lifetime


  1. Hale-Bopp
  2. Hyakutake
  3. That comet in the opening credits of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where if you freeze at just the right second the comet particles make up Spock’s face
  4. Fine, NEOWISE, then
  5. Kohoutek
  6. Halley

Not listed: West, because everyone was so embarrassed by Kohoutek we just pretended we didn’t see it even when we did.

Reference: A History of Modern France, Volume 1: 1715 – 1799, Alfred Cobban.

Newton’s Prank


I’ll bet that if you have a mental image of Isaac Newton at all, it’s a pretty stern one: a guy forced to wear gentlemanly outfits of the late 17th century with that huge powdered wig that seems to be sarcasm, staring out with an expression that says “shut up, you idiot, I already know everything you could possibly say, and it’s all idiotic”, only written like they did back before anyone decided spelling words kind of the same-ish way most of the time. You don’t think of him as having a humorous side at all, or even cracking a smile. At best you’d think his only entertainment was judging other people to be far beneath him, but that’s one of those cases where history is overblowing his reputation. Why, once time, as Member of Parliament representing Cambridge at the Convention Parliament in 1689, which decided King James II had left the throne of England without pointing out how he left because of all those people pointing pointy spears at him, Newton once piped up to say that it was a little drafty and could you please close the window, you insufferable dunce.

But there’s more to him than that. Why, according to this book that got quoted in some other book that I actually read, Newton at least once played a really grand practical joke. And yeah, I know, you can put anything you want in one book, but I read in a totally different book about the same thing happening, without even quoting that first book, so this has got to be legitimate. While a student at the Grantham Grammar School in the 1650s, “he first made lanterns of paper crimpled, which used to go to school by, in winter mornings, with a candle, and tied them to the tails of the kites in a dark night, which at first affrighted the country people by thinking they were comets”, and if all that isn’t remarkable enough consider that my spell-checker has no objection to “affrighted” but doesn’t think “crimpled” is a word.

Apparently, his little stunt of faking a comet was very convincing in making other people think they were seeing comets, which got the folks around Grantham to wonder what calamity the comets were foretelling. I hope they’re not still waiting for the disaster, come to think of it. Probably they’re not; 350 years is a while to wait for the end of the world to be set off by a fake comet hung from a kite, but, get an idea in some people’s minds and it won’t get back out again either. Anyway, his getting people to see portents of doom is a really good response to a practical joke. The most response I ever get from a prank is some resigned sighing and people looking at their watches to see if they’ve acknowledged my existence enough and can now move on. I just bet Newton never had to deal with people rolling their eyes and smacking their lips while waiting for me to finish being amused by myself, but to be fair, he was the one with that whole idea of faking a comet with some kites and some paper crimpled. Also inventing physics. That’s pretty impressive too.

But if Newton was willing to play this one prank, one time, when he was a kid, obviously, he must’ve played a whole bunch of other pranks throughout his life. What other ones might there have been? I guess the obvious things he might have done were to spread rumors about how Wilhelm Leibniz plagiarized his recipe for Apple Moon Pie (“takke your Appells toe a most vy. grt. height above yr Moone Pie, and droppe them on the Moone Pie untill it being the Pie is affrightingly crimpled”), impose a confusing infinitesimals-based notation on calculus, or call Robert Hooke over to set his drinks on Hooke’s head. But I guess it’s more respectable that Newton might have played practical jokes that require some real props and lighting effects and such; think how you’d feel if you learned Newton was fond of Mad Libs or of telling lesser scientists “I got your nose, you pathetic ignoramus”. It takes imagination to make a comet, a lesson taken to heart by Newton’s I-guess-you-can-kind-of-call-him-a-friend Edmond Halley.

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