How to avoid getting hit by Halley's comet

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A friend has a rule for deciding when to resist a fad. If the hype is sufficiently blatant to put the subject (a) on the cover of a newsmagazine, or (b) on the front of a T-shirt, she wants no part of it. This simple test has excused her -- on both counts -- from paying the slightest attention in 1985 to Madonna, Don Johnson, and now Halley's comet.

What are we to make of the selling of Halley's comet -- a phenomenon that threatens to burn out before the comet properly comes in sight?

It is hard to avoid a not terribly flattering answer.

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If historians (and a fair number of poets) are to be believed, people used to look up at the sky for a sense of order, a majestic stillness they did not find on earth below. The stars were cherished not only for lighting up the night and guiding the traveler on dark journeys but for serving thus as beacons of faith. To human beings harrassed on land and blown about at sea, the sky was indeed the firmament. With matchless constancy the constellations radiated a fixed point of reference, maintaining their

bright hierarchies as kings and potentates and entire nations came and went.

The overarching vault of serene space told philosophers and simple folk alike that there was more to life than the hectic chaos of history or the frantic runaround of daily life.

By these standards, Halley's comet is an aberration -- a kind of celestial ego trip.

Yet this, it seems, is just what it takes to get us to look up. We turn to the heavens -- as everywhere else -- for excitement. Our taste runs to fire-tailed comets and shooting stars -- incandescent little pieces of hurtling real estate too hot (in the words of Cole Porter) not to cool down.

We want action. We want flash and flamboyance. We want ``Comet Fever'' -- Don Gropman's title for one of the more informative new books on Halley's comet.

Not for us the Bach cantata of the Big Dipper when we can get this jiggling little Mick Jagger for a one-night stand!

In an essay called ``The Fifth Planet,'' Loren Eiseley drew a portrait of the comet-watcher as a type. Eiseley had a friend who started out tracking meteorites through his telescope, standing on his ``wide and red-stoned plateau,'' checking out ``the things that came down upon it out of the dark.'' But he looked up for so long that, in some mad way, he lost his footing. He became convinced that he had discovered an unknown planet, just to one side of Jupiter, and eventually came to confuse it mystically with the bomb over Hiroshima -- the man-made ball of fire in the sky.

The rest of us may not be as daft or as dour as Eiseley's friend. But we too seem to have lost the ancient knack of seeing the face of harmony and hearing the music of the spheres when we look up into the nighttime sky. Our late-20th-century sky has become a habitat for rockets, a potential superhighway for missiles. The universe that some say began with a Big Bang in the sky some say could end with another sort of Big Bang.

Under the circumstances, the fireball of Halley's carries a menace in 1985 it lacked in 1910, when the worst disaster from the sky that anybody could imagine was a comet, 3 to 12 miles in diameter, crashing to earth.

For one reason or another, Halley's comet, dramatizing space at its least stable and streakiest, is not necessarily everybody's favorite metaphor.

It's not the comet's fault. It's not Halley's fault. It's not even Carl Sagan's fault, with his ABC-TV Halley's comet hotline. It's just that some days you're ready to go with the hype and the T-shirts and all the ballyhoo about space being the new frontier. And some days you feel like trading in your moon-walking shoes, like Eiseley after he'd heard quite enough about that extra planet.

Planting his feet on the ground, he wrote: ``One has to live, you know, and I've always had a feeling that space was not in my line.'' A Wednesday and Friday column

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