Monthly Archives: June 2013

Off On A Comet

Off On a Comet
Illustration from 1877 edition of Jules Verne’s novel “Off On A Comet” (Fr. title “Hector Servadac”). It’s a strange story in which a comet crashes through the Earth and carries away part of the Mediterranean and surrounding land, plus a few people. They ride the comet for two years until its orbit takes them back by the Earth, at which point they contrive to escape the comet and return home.

In the chapter of this illustration, Hector Servadac and his servant, not yet aware that they’re riding on a comet, discover that they can jump very high because of a loss of gravity.

New Author Video

Just be clear: this is NOT my new author video.

You can see my new author video on the book page of this site.

The Great Comet of 1528

No. 4 in our Comet of the Week: The Great Comet of 1528. The best thing about this comet is its description, provided by Monsieur Ambroise Pare, “the father of modern surgery”:

“This comet was so horrible, so frightful, and it produced such great terror in the vulgar, that some died of fear, and others fell sick. It appeared to be of excessive length, and was of the colour of blood. At the summit of it was seen the figure of a bent arm, holding in its hand a great sword, as if about to strike. At the end of the point there were three stars. On both sides of the rays of this comet were seen a great number of axes, knives, blood-coloured swords, among which were a great number of hideous human faces, with beards and bristling hair.”

He even draws it for us:

Great Comet of 1528
(from Pare’s “Livres de Chirurgie,” in a chapter titled “Des Monstres Celestes.” Paris, 1597.)

One problem with this comet is that no one else saw it. There’s no other record of the Great Comet of 1528.

Even though he was no astronomer, Pare ought to be a reliable witness. He was court surgeon to Kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. He’s famous for his many innovations in medicine and surgery, not the least of which were the prosthetics he invented for war amputees. Pare devised the first mechanical artificial hand, operated by catches and springs that simulated the joints of a real hand. It looked like this:

L0043496 Ambroise Pare: prosthetics, mechanical hand

But still: ” . . . a great number of axes, knives, blood-coloured swords, among which were a great number of hideous human faces, with beards and bristling hair . . .”

Really, Pare? Really?

Look at the Moon

In commemoration of tonight’s supermoon: illustration by Leonard Weisgard, from “Look at the Moon,” written by May Garelick (1969).

Look at the Moon

Thanks again to Stephen Ellcock’s wonderful online FB gallery.

The Comet of the Black Death (Comet Negra, 1347)

Number three in our weekly series of Great Comets: The Comet of the Black Death, or Comet Negra. Hard to beat this one for dramatic impact.

Halley's Comet 1457 cropped

The Comet of the Black Death is said to have coincided with the great plague, the “Black Death,” that killed half the population of Europe from 1346 to 1350. It’s believed that the plague originated in Central Asia and was carried along the Silk Road into Europe by fleas on rats.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted the Black Death this way, in his 1562 painting “The Triumph of Death”:

The Triumph of Death

There are other theories, too, about the origin of the Black Death. One says that a comet or fragments of a comet precipitated the Black Death. If the last Ice Age was caused by an asteroid impact, as some scientists believe, then it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that a piece of a comet striking the Earth could have disrupted the atmosphere enough to initiate the famines and plagues that characterized the Black Death:

“In France . . . was seen the terrible Comet called Negra. In December appeared over Avignon a Pillar of Fire. There were many great Earthquakes, Tempests, Thunders and Lightnings, and thousands of People were swallowed up; the Courses of Rivers were stopt; some Chasms of the Earth sent forth Blood. Terrible Showers of Hail, each stone weighing 1 Pound to 8; Abortions in all Countries; in Germany it rained Blood; in France Blood gushed out of the Graves of the Dead, and stained the Rivers crimson; Comets, Meteors, Fire-beams, corruscations in the Air, Mock-suns, the Heavens on Fire . . .”

You get the idea. (From A General Chronological History of the Air, Weather, Seasons, Meteors, Etc., by Thomas Short, 1749. London.)

That comet image, by the way, is really from a 1456 depiction of Halley’s Comet, as seen in the illustration below. I couldn’t find any images of the Comet of the Black Death. There was no one alive to paint one, apparently.

Halley's Comet 1456

Cat’s Eye Nebula

The Cat’s Eye Nebula, as photographed by the Hubble Telescope. Discovered in 1786, the Cat’s Eye Nebula lies 3,000 light years from Earth. Interestingly (for me anyway), the Cat’s Eye Nebula is only about 1000 years old (+/- 260 years).

Cat's Eye Nebula

A planetary nebula like this (which, confusingly, has nothing to do with planets) is a star near its last stage of life. A star begins as a cloud of molecular dust, settles into a main-sequence star like the Sun, expands to become a red giant, then contracts to a white dwarf, then dissipates as a planetary nebula, then explodes into a supernova. Somewhere in that sequence there are also red dwarfs and blue dwarfs.

You can see more amazing photos of deep space objects and such at NASA’s

And here’s a trippy, catchy song about supernovas, by the band Oasis when they were still good:

The Great Easter Comet of 1066

This week’s featured comet: The Great Easter Comet of 1066.


The Great Easter Comet of 1066–also called “The Comet of the Conquest”–was actually Halley’s Comet, making one of its 76-year periodic appearances. And 1066, you’ll remember from history class, was the year of the Norman Conquest of England.

Legend says that the comet appeared at Easter time and shone for forty days, waxing and waning with the moon:

“Under its seven rays, that year, William the Conqueror felt inspired to fall upon England, while Harold, the Saxon, on the other hand, saw in the Comet a star of dread foreboding and of doom.”

The comet lit the Normans’ trip across the English Channel, and William pointed it out to his soldiers to stir their courage, saying it was a sign from heaven of their coming victory.

Sigebert of Brabant, a Belgian chronicler of the time, wrote of the comet: “Over the island of Britain was seen a star of a wonderful bigness, to the train of which hung a fiery sword not unlike a dragon’s tail; and out of the dragon’s mouth issued two vast rays, whereof one reached as far as France, and the other, divided into seven lesser rays, stretched away towards Ireland.”

After the Norman Conquest, the comet was immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry, sewn by William’s wife, Queen Matilda, and her court. You can still see the tapestry in Bayeux, France. In one panel, King Harold of England is shown cowering on his throne while his people huddle together in fear, pointing at the comet. The Latin legend over the picture reads “Isti Mirant Stella”: They marvel at the star.


One result of the Norman Conquest (and of the comet, you could say) is that we now have many, many words of French origin in the English language, such as “conquest,” “origin,” and “language.”

All About the Stars 2

From the book “All About the Stars,” by Anne Terry White, illustrated by Marvin Bileck (1954).
In “My Vintage Book Collection,” via Stephen Ellcock.

allaboutthestars 003

All About the Stars

“All About the Stars,” by Anne Terry White, illustrated by Marvin Bileck (1954).
From “My Vintage Book Collection,” via Stephen Ellcock.

allaboutthestars 001

Atlas Cosmobiographique – Petur Beron, 1859

From Stephen Ellcock’s “The Celestial Archive: Pre-Space Age IMages of the Heavens.”

Atlas Cosmobiographique