Seeing Stars

I’ve never seen a shooting star.

I tell a lie. I may have once, looking up and seeing what could have been the tail end of a meteor entering the atmosphere and disappearing down to Earth. I could have been mistaken though, it could have been an optical illusion, I could have turned my head a little too fast. So I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I’ve seen a shooting star.

Some people, on the other hand, can’t avoid them. There’s a guy in Bosnia whose house has been hit by meteorites six times; he’s got to the point where he thinks he’s being targeted by aliens. And then there’s Ernst Chladni, who was met with ridicule when he suggested that meteroids had an cosmic origin.

I have, however, seen a comet. Hale-Bopp dominated the sky in 1997 and it hung in space above my street, an eerie ball of light shining over the human world. For me it was simply a memorable event, and some friends of mine never saw it; for others it was life and death – the Heaven’s Gate cult believed that the comet was accomanied by a spacecraft and, between March 24-26 1997, they committed mass suicide, convinced they were leaving the physical vessels of their bodies to meet up with that ship. In doing this they became another example of how comets were and are believed to herald disaster and upheaval.

Halley’s Comet is the most famous example of this, swinging round every 76 years or so and getting its name when  Edmond Halley worked out its orbit and predicted its return in 1986.  It appeared prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and heralded the birth of Kamehameha the Great, who united the Hawaiian islands under his rule; Mark Twain entered this world with Halley’s Comet in 1835 and exited with it 75 years later in 1910. That was the year in which many people believed that the return of the comet would see everyone wiped out by the gases in its tail (see number 7 on this list).

Another thing I’ve never seen is the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Maybe one day….

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