Mankind's Comet, by Guy Ottewell and Fred Schaaf. Greenville, S.C.: Astronomical Workshop, Furman University. ISBN 0-934546-15-0. 193 pp. $22. ``Mankind's Comet,'' by Guy Ottewell and Fred Schaaf, is not exactly a coffeetable book. Mr. Schaaf is a regular columnist for the popular magazine Astronomy. Mr. Ottewell is a free-lance writer who enjoys ``walking around and observing nature.'' Their book has no flashy pictures, but it is filled with anecdotes, bits of history, and a wealth of facts about Halley's comet and the people who have observed it from Earth. It is meant for the coffee table in your mind.
``Mankind's Comet'' has a large and unusual format. The pages are about as large as a single page of the Monitor. It is spiral bound so that it may lie flat, a format that suits its large appendices perfectly. The appendices, which comprise almost half the book, depict the 48 orbits of Halley's comet.
In snapshot-like sections spaced by Halley's successive returns, the early chapters take us through the history of the comet and the Earth. For example, under the AD 1301 return is the history of the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone, who, among other works, painted a fresco of the Nativity in which ``for the first time in religious iconography, [the star in the East] is not a star, not a little schematic eight-pointed symbol; it is a comet, huge and realistic. . . .'' And, of course, the spacecraft that the European Space Agency sent to visit the comet was named ``Giotto.''
In the glimpses we get of some of the observers and scientists who have watched the comet, we begin to understand the importance of comets to the development of astronomy. The so-called Messier objects -- nebulae and globular clusters -- were cataloged so that a very diligent comet seeker would not mistake them for comets. Messier was so fanatical in his searches that King Louis XV called him the ``comet ferret.''
Several chapters deal with the astronomy of comets: How they are discovered and named, how they are related to meteor showers, what they are, and where they come from. These chapters are delightful; it is like having a very patient and knowledgeable uncle carefully answering your questions in a manner that you can understand. The authors don't assume you've mastered your first astronomy class, merely that you are interested and will listen to the explanation.
Not only do they include the necessary formulas and methods an amateur astronomer will need to report his own observations of Halley, but they also enliven our appreciation of these conventions by giving the history and rationale behind them -- removing the mystery, adding depth, and firing the interest.