According to the NASA website, “Comets are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the Sun. When frozen, they are the size of a small town. When a comet’s orbit brings it close to the Sun, it heats up and spews dust and gases into a giant glowing head larger than most planets. The dust and gases form a tail that stretches away from the Sun for millions of miles.”
It is rare to be able to see a comet with the naked eye, but Comet Neowise has been exciting spectators across the globe this month. For the first two weeks of July it was visible about an hour before sunrise each day, but now that we’ve passed mid-month, you may be able to view it in the northwest sky about an hour or two after sunset. It will be closest to Earth on July 23, after which it will start to fade away as it moves out into space. According to Sky & Telescope Magazine, “Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right.”
What did those who lived in the seventeenth century think about these “blazing stars” in the sky?
In the winter of 1664-5, from early November to the end of the winter season, a comet was seen in New England skies (and, in fact, was visible in all parts of the globe). Was it an omen? People of the 1600s believed these lights in the sky were possibly portents of calamities to come, announcing disasters like earthquakes and storms, or the deaths of important people, or the approach of widespread disease. For those living in England, the comet in the winter sky of 1664 seemed to announce the last major outbreak of bubonic plague to occur in that country, which killed 100,000 people in London over 18 months of 1665-6, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed more than 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Understandably, people in the seventeenth century often turned to scripture and their ministers for guidance.
On January 20, 1681 (by the Julian calendar), 41-year-old Boston Reverend Increase Mather delivered a sermon on Lecture Day about the Great Comet of 1680, titled “HEAVEN’S ALARM TO THE WORLD OR A SERMON, wherein is shewed, That Fearful Sights And Signs in Heaven, are the PRESAGES of great CALAMITIES at hand.” In this sermon, Reverend Mather noted, “As for the Blazing Star, which hath occasioned this present Discourse, it was a terrible sight indeed, especially about the middle of December last, the stream of such a stupendous magnitude, as that few men now living ever beheld the like.” Mather also spoke of the history of comets over the years, saying there were 11 known sightings before the birth of Jesus Christ and 158 more in the 1,680 years since. “Concerning those admirable; and amazing works of God, which are by us called Comets…,” Mather said; “Many times such fearful Sights are tokens of God’s Anger; which is another Reason why they are called Signs, as being Signs of the Anger of God.” The Bible also describes celestial occurrences as harbingers of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, such as this from Luke 21: 11 – “And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.” And from Luke 21:31 – “So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”
However, not all believed these comets were dark omens. Forty-five years later. Increase Mather’s son, Reverend Cotton Mather, cautioned people about reading too much into these “fearful sights and great signs.” Though Cotton may have believed in the superstitions of witchcraft in 1692, but by 1726, in his work Manuductio ad ministerium, he took a very different stance, noting “Perhaps there may be some need for me to caution you against being dismayed at the signs of the heavens, or having any superstitious fancies upon eclipses or the like . . . I am willing that you be apprehensive of nothing portentous in blazing stars. For my part, I know not whether all the worlds, and even the sun itself, may not fare the better for them.”
Another famous name from the Salem witchcraft trials is Thomas Brattle, remembered for his October 8, 1692 “letter to an unnamed clergyman,” condemning the processes used during the trials. He was one of the few skeptics to raise objections at the time, regarding the use of spectral evidence and the touch test. Perhaps Brattle’s view was skeptical because he was a natural scientist and critical thinker. Born into a wealthy Boston family in 1658, Brattle graduated from Harvard, and studied for some years after Harvard in England, where he knew the greatest scholars of the day, among them John Flamsteed, who was appointed the first royal astronomer by Charles II in 1675.
Known for his keen observations of all manner of events, Brattle is even credited with influencing Isaac Newton’s law of gravitation. Brattle, also an astronomer, was one of the New England observers of the Great Comet of 1680. He and fellow New Englander John Foster noted the comet’s arrival and disappearance in November, and then its return in December and January. According to Rick Kennedy, Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University Southeast, “The astonishing aspect of their observations was that they correctly believed that the two sightings were of the same comet that had passed around the sun. Only the royal astronomer, John Flamsteed, came to a similar conclusion. Not even Isaac Newton believed that the comet had changed direction until he was convinced by Flamsteed, and the revelation was a factor in Newton’s development of universal gravitation.” Brattle forwarded his data to England, it was read by Edmund Halley, who then sent it on to Newton. This led to Brattle’s observations being cited in Newton’s Principia, one of the most important works in the history of science.
Though today, comets are no longer viewed as a cosmic sign or harbinger of ill tidings, they do still put so much into perspective. In the twentieth-first century, just as in the seventeenth, witnessing a rare cosmological event is awe-inspiring. Living hundreds of years later, it is quite remarkable to consider the supremely human feeling we now share with our ancestors as we look up to the sky and realize we are just one very small piece of a large and epic cosmos.
Kennedy, Rick. “Thomas Brattle and the Scientific Provincialism of New England, 1680-1713.” The New England Quarterly 63, no. 4 (1990): 584-600. Accessed July 21, 2020. doi:10.2307/365919.
Mather, Cotton. Manuductio ad ministerium. Directions for a candidate of the ministry: Wherein, first, a right foundation is laid for his future improvement; and, then, rules are offered for such a management of his academical and preparatory studies; and thereupon, for such a conduct after his appearance in the world; as may render his a skillful and useful minister of the Gospel. Boston: Thomas Hancock, 1726.
Mather, Increase. Heaven’s alarm to the world. Or a sermon, wherein is shewed, that fearful sights and signs in heaven, are the presages of great calamities at hand. Preached at the lecture in Boston in New-England; January, 20. 1680. Boston: Joseph Browning, 1682.
NASA Science Solar System Exploration. “Comets.” Overview. Accessed 7/17/2020. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/asteroids-comets-and-meteors/comets/overview/?page=0&per_page=40&order=name+asc&search=&condition_1=102%3Aparent_id&condition_2=comet%3Abody_type%3Ailike
Sky & Telescope: The Essential Guide to Astronomy. “A Bright New Visitor: How to Spot Comet Neowise.” Press Release. Last Modified July 9, 2020. https://skyandtelescope.org/press-releases/new-bright-visitor-comet-neowise/