Science: Flop of the Century?

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In the shivering cold atop Manhattan's Empire State Building last week, a hardy band of amateur astronomers were asked by a television interviewer what they thought of Kohoutek's comet. "Flop of the century!" they agreed unanimously. At a comet party near Chicago, Astronomer J. Allen Hynek explained away the weak drink that he was serving his 800 guests. "A fake punch for a fake comet," he said.

The celestial object that had been widely billed as "the comet of the century" had indeed turned out to be a disappointing dud. Looking with unaided eye into the southwest sky after sunset, most observers in well-lighted, smoggy metropolitan areas could find no trace of Kohoutek. Even with binoculars, they saw only a faint smudge near the bright planets Venus and Jupiter. From their orbital vantage, the Skylab astronauts found that the comet had suddenly become bewilderingly faint; only a few days before, they had enthusiastically described it as glowing "yellow and orange, just like a flame."

Sticky Glue. Some NASA astronomers speculated that the sun's heat might have baked the comet's exterior into a kind of "sticky glue" that prevented some of the cometary dust and gas from boiling off. University of Arizona Astronomer Elizabeth Roemer, for one, found this theory improbable. Comets, she explained, are too gaseous and fragile to develop such a crust. Other astronomers suggested that Kohoutek, a "virgin" comet making its first approach to the inner part of the solar system and never before exposed to the warmth of the sun, had flared up briefly when its more volatile materials boiled off. It was that early glow, observed when the comet was still as far away as Jupiter, that raised astronomers' expectations.

For all its fadeout from public view, Comet Kohoutek was far from a scientific disappointment. About a month after they had detected methyl cyanide molecules in the comet's head, radio astronomers atop Kitt Peak last week reported picking up the "signature" of hydrogen cyanide molecules in radio waves from Kohoutek. The discovery has dual significance. Both molecules have been found in the clouds of gases and dust in the vast reaches between the stars; thus their presence in the comet lends strong support to the theory that comets were formed from the same interstellar material out of which the solar system was born. In addition, because both molecules decompose into simpler molecules unless they are frozen, their detection helps confirm the most commonly accepted idea about comets: they are little more than giant icebergs made up of frozen gases and dust.

The Game of Life

Computer time is a precious commodity to scientists and engineers; the speed and capacious memory of the giant electronic brains are vital to operations as varied as space navigation and supermarket inventory control. Yet despite the crush at major computer centers on both sides of the Atlantic, more and more expensive computer time these days is being devoted to a deceptively simple game called "Life." Unlike most games, Life does not require an opponent; it is played not to win but to provide participants with an endless series of unexpected patterns that often seem to have a life of their own.

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