SPECIAL REPORT: Kohoutek: Comet of the Century

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Still, fear of comets persisted. Just before Halley's comet returned in 1835, rumors spread that it would collide with the earth. Although the path of Halley's comet precluded collision, the possibility that a comet could strike the earth is not entirely farfetched. The earth bears the scars of at least two impacts that some scientists ascribe to comets: at the site of the Great Tunguska catastrophe, which leveled the Siberian landscape for more than 20 miles around in 1908, and in the geological formation known as the Witwatersrand gold field in South Africa. The possibility of a hit also fascinated Jules Verne. In his 1877 story Hector Servadac, the earth is smashed to bits by a comet, and the protagonists drift off into space on one of the fragments. Statistically, the likelihood of a comet colliding with the earth is extremely remote; scientists calculate that such a collision will occur no more than once every 200 million years.

Two Freaks. Cometphobia took another form during Halley's reappearance in 1910. Fearing that mankind would be poisoned as the earth passed through noxious gases in the comet's tail, many people bought gas masks and "comet pills" to prevent asphyxiation; they also staged a round of end-of-the-world parties. But the gases were far too tenuous to do any damage, and the earth remained unscathed. One famous prediction, however, did come to pass. Mark Twain, who had been born during the comet's previous visitation in 1835, and wrote that he expected to die during its next ("The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks, they came in together, they must go out together.' "), died only a day after Halley's comet made its closest approach to the sun.

Perhaps the most famous comet tale was written by Futurist H.G. Wells. In his 1906 novel In the Days of the Comet, the earth was enveloped in a mysterious green gas from a comet's tail just as war broke out between England and France. The vapors had so beneficent an effect that the combatants fell asleep for three hours, awoke to a world without war and began building a Utopia of socialism and love. In contrast, there is the bleak view of Psychologist turned Amateur Geophysicist Immanuel Velikovsky. In his bestselling 1950 book Worlds in Collision—which is regarded as gospel by many mystics but as science fiction by most scientists—Velikov-sky blamed a near miss by a comet for such biblical events as the parting of the Red Sea and the plagues of Egypt. The fate of that comet? According to Velikovsky's scenario, it settled into an orbit near the earth and is now known as the planet Venus.

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