Anniversary Post: Halley’s Comet Last Perihelion

Halley's CometOn this day in 1986, Halley’s Comet last reached perihelion — its closest approach to the Sun. This was right about the time I decided that I was not going to be a musician and that I was going to kill myself if I had to continue to be a baker. So I had started studying physics and math in my spare time and took a few courses at the local junior college. I befriended a guy who was really into astronomy. And I went out with him and his wife to view the fabled comet.

It was uninspiring, to say the least. The last visit of Halley’s Comet didn’t bring it very close to the Earth. So it looked like a smudge in the sky. But that was more or less my introduction to experimental astronomy. And by that, I mean standing out in the cold near telescopes. I had gone with the same friend a year earlier to see Carl Sagan give a talk on his book Comet. But this was rather different. And in the coming years, I would spend a lot of time at the Sonoma State University Observatory.

But that really wasn’t about astronomy. I only ever learned any astronomy when I was forced to teach it as a lowly college professor. At that time, the observatory had just gotten a CCD camera that we hooked up to a telescope (a 13″ reflector, as I recall). I had written some very small part of software for the system and I was usually the guy who controlled it for public viewings. But that just meant that I was where I am almost always when I’m awake: sitting in from of a computer.

As nerd activities go, astronomy is one of the better ones. And it takes place outside. At the same time, it is at night, which is more in keeping with nerd sensibilities.

14 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Halley’s Comet Last Perihelion

  1. Halley’s Comet was a dreadful let-down. Even with a small telescope I couldn’t find the darn thing. Fortunately, we had two spectacular comets in the ’90s (Hyukatake and Hale-Bopp), which helped me forget my disappointment a decade earlier.

    • Well, I did see it (I can’t say “find,” because my friend did that) and it was still a dreadful let-down. Of course, I still find the night sky fascinating, just to gaze upon. So there’s that. According to Sagan in the talk, next time will be really good and the time after that will be spectacular. But we’ll be dead. In generally, I think immortality is terrifying. But it would be cool to be around for things that that.

  2. All I remember the time is that there was a movie about the comet and all of humanity died. The things you see when you are seven.

    • I have a vague notion that you are talking about Night of the Comet, which, as I recall, is a very silly, but fun, movie. All I remember is the end where the cute guy drives up so that the younger sister has a happy ending too.

      • Yep, I watched it when I was a wee child and then a few years later I watched parts of it. The part about the trying on clothes after everyone died was fun to watch.

        • I’ll have to watch it again. It’s basically a zombie film, right? Kind of “Night of the Living Dead” meets “Valley Girls”?

              • Hey! I was SEVEN when I saw it and five when it came out! I think I can be forgiven not remembering all of the details 29 years later!

                • Maybe it’s a guy thing. We remember the zombies. Of course, the zombies in the film are a little different that those typical of the time. They could speak, for example. I only know that because I watched about 20 minutes of it tonight.

                  • It could be. I think it is more it has been decades since I have seen it and I am lucky I remember that much. Going to watch some Samurai films tonight though.

                    • Which one?

                      I watched NotC last night. Very interest. I will probably write about it. I can see why you don’t remember the zombies. There are almost none in it — mostly in dream sequences. And they are more like the zombies in Omega Man.

                    • *googles NotC*


                      well now that was not the response I expected.

                    • Yes, they only do the zombie races every other Tuesday now.

                      James does that to me all the time, so I figured you would know I mean Night of the Comet. Sorry.

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