A Feverish but lively history of the great comet; The Comet is Coming! The Feverish Legacy of Mr. Halley, by Nigel Calder. New York: The Viking Press. $12.95.
This entertaining, lively, informative book could also be subtitled "the feverish account of Mr. Calder." The eminent British science writer Nigel Calder has done his usual competent literary job. It is somewhat marred, however, by a needless harping on the perils and foibles of humanity's age-old cometary superstitions that have driven some to suicide and others to drink.
It's salutary to be reminded of the human tendency to see what one believes -- including evil omens in comets -- and to let superstition distort society as well as reason. But it is overkill to make this the main theme of a book that aims to give readers a background for appreciating the return of Halley's Comet in 1985-86.
This is the American edition of a book published last year in London by the British Broadcasting Corporation. As with Calder's similar books in the past, there is a TV version also to come. If it is a good as the book, it should be a joy to watch. Meanwhile, and despite the above reservation, the book can be highly recommended as background reading for what will, after all, be an astronomical event of a lifetime.
The famous comet returns about once in 75 years. It's a spectacular "naked eye" object, as astronomers say, that has awed people for centuries. Calder recounts this history, briefs us on what is now known about comets generally, and gives us something intriguing to ponder in modern scientific speculations about cometary portents.
One of these hypotheses, advanced by two astrophysicists, Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Winkramasinghe, holds that viruses and other living microorganisms arise in comets. Earth may have been seeded with life by cometary dust. Indeed, such microbes may occasionally descend on Earth today. Most experts discount this thesis, as does Calder. But, as the author also notes, it is provoking new thinking and studies in astrochemistry.
The other hypothesis suggests that an Earth collision with a large comet or asteroid caused a catastrophe some 65 million years ago that did in the dinosaurs. This thesis, although also unproved, has a more respectful hearing among scientists, for there is reason to believe that comets do sometimes, albeit rarely, hit our planet.
In any event, there is much in the book to spark lively conversations as we await the return of the great comet. Feverish or not, it is a "good read."