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Book review: “Atlas of Great Comets” by Ronald Stoyan

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I have been “into” comets since mid 1983 when, as a starry-eyed teenager, I saw my first one – Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock, which passed so close to Earth that its motion across the sky was visible almost in real time through binoculars and telescopes, and naked eye observers could tell it had moved noticeably over the course of an hour or so. It had no tail. and looked just like a grey puffball as it drifted through the stars of the Little Dipper, but gazing at it through my binoculars I was smitten. Two years later, after reading about it since I was a space-mad kid hiding in the library at school at break-times, reading the science books instead of kicking a ball around outside, I had my first sighting of Halley’s Comet on Bonfire Night 1985 through the same binoculars, and actually cheered at the sky with joy. Halley itself was a bit of a washout for northern hemisphere observers, and the highlight of its apparition for me wasn’t actually seeing it myself, but showing it to an old lady through my telescope – a lady who had seen it as a young girl in 1910, and had been told by her father she would never see it again. “Ha! I proved the old b*****d wrong, thank you!” she laughed, peering into the eyepiece.

Time passed, and I collected as many comets as I could. In the late 1990s I marvelled at Comet Hyakutake’s long tail stretching across the sky like a lavender ribbon, and fell in love with Hale-Bopp as it decorated the sky for months on end. Over the years the Cumbrian weather has thwarted my attempts to view many comets others have seen, but my enthusiasm has never waned, and now, more than 30 years after I stood in a lay-by gazing up at comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock floating past the stars of the Little Dipper, I find myself as the Director of the Comet Section of the Society for Popular Astronomy, helping others to see comets, still cursing the name “ISON”  and looking forward to The Next Big One…

So you can imagine my excitement when, a while ago, I read online – on Facebook, I think it was, or maybe Twitter, I’m not sure now – about a new book all about comets, a big, beautiful “atlas” which described and compared the greatest comets of the past. Comet experts who already had it were raving about it; others who wanted it were desperate to get their hands on it. It sounded gorgeous but expensive, prohibitively expensive, so I just made a mental note to keep an eye out for it during my regular visits to book shops and didn’t think much more about it.

And then last week, browsing the astronomy shelves of the “popular science” section in a big Edinburgh bookshop whilst taking a much-needed break from the madness and mayhem that is the annual Festival, I saw it… sitting there, on the bottom shelf. It took me a moment to recognise the title, but when I did, I probably looked like this as I picked it up and opened it…

hbapRk-raiders-of-the-lost-ark-openin-ZhLY…because it was just… beautiful. It was a treasure chest of cometary delights. Inside, on deliciously glossy pages, every Great Comet going back to the Great Comet of 1471 was described, shown, and celebrated in exquisite, painstaking detail. Here’s a typical spread, so you can see the book’s format, modelled by you know who…

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You can see there on the left a familiar artist’s impression of the famous, multi-tailed Great Comet of 1744. Opposite, on the right hand side, there is a table of useful astronomical information about the comet (its “elements”, effectively), and also a star chart showing the track of the comet across the sky during its apparition – a great idea because I’ve always been curious about where the famous comets of the past had actually been in the sky at their best. The text itself describes, in detail, the discovery, appearance and scientific importance of each comet, and, just as interesting, the public’s reaction to it at the time.

So far, so good.

Now, if that was all the book offered it would still be worth buying, but it offers so much more. For a start, each chapter in the book is lavishly illustrated, as you might expect from a “coffee table” format book of this type. Of course, there are photographs of the most recent comets – from 1910 onwards, really, and the images of comets such as Hyakutake, Hale-Bopp and McNaught are all striking – but for comets which appeared in the sky earlier than that, before photography, the illustrations are woodcuts, engravings and paintings, and some of them are simply jaw-droppingly beautiful, every bit as striking as the more modern photographs. At the start of  the book particularly, every turn of a page brings into view a new vision of wonder. Take a look at this spread, for example…

3Let’s take a closer look, past Peggy’s head…

3bThose are depictions of comets seen in the Middle Ages, and the book contains LOTS of pictures like that, as well as more subtle water-colour paintings of comets glowing serenely above country landscapes and rather less subtle cartoons and advertising pictures too.

But this book isn’t just a collection of lovely images with some interesting text wrapped around them. It’s essentially a time machine, allowing you to travel back through the centuries to imagine what it must have been like to actually see some of the Great Comets of the past. Thanks to this book I can now take myself back to the Christmas of 1680, when Comet Kirch was blazing in the sky. Magnitude minus ten (minus ten!!!!) it had a long, brilliant tail, which stretched across half the sky, and a brilliant red head; reading pages 120 to 124 I can click my fingers and transport myself back 172 years, to when the Great March Comet of 1843 was dominating the sky, so bright – magnitude -10 again! – that many people saw it in the daytime sky, with a tail ten degrees long even in daylight! That comet still holds the record for the longest tail: 70 degrees. How long is that? This long…

70 tail

Reading this beautiful book was actually a bitter-sweet experience. It was great to see all the beautiful images of comets of the past, but frustrating to see the photos of comets I’ve missed (and there have been lots), either because I was just too young to see them, or because the ********** weather stopped me. And it also brought home to me just how long overdue we are for our *own* Great Comet. Comet ISON (spit) looked like it might be an impressive object, but in the end it just couldn’t be bothered and fell apart as it rounded the Sun. But we are long, long overdue another truly Great comet, another Hale-Bopp or Donati’s. When it appears, and it will, eventually, oh boy, the images that will be taken with today’s digital cameras and technology; I feel almost dizzy with excitement when I imagine the photos I would take with my DSLR and iOptron tracker if another Hyakutake graced our nights, or if another Comet West blazed in the pre-dawn sky..

Looking through the pages of this book, seeing the beautiful paintings of comets from centuries past, it brought home to me that our generation’s Great Comet must be out there right now, RIGHT now, waiting to be discovered, waiting for calculations of its orbit to show it will blaze in our sky… I hope it is found soon, because reading this book has really made me impatient to be standing outside on a cold, clear night, with members of my astronomical society and the public all around me, looking up and seeing a Great Comet’s tail unfurled across the heavens like a medieval pennant.

This isn’t a cheap book – the bookstore in Edinburgh was selling it for £34 – but it is so beautiful that despite that hefty price I almost caved in to my impulses and bought it there and then; I was like Gollum looking at The One Ring, I had to have it..! Thankfully Stella urged me to wait and see if it could be found cheaper online, as most things can be nowadays, and I quickly found one a third cheaper online, albeit with a (very) slightly damaged cover.

Should YOU buy this book? That depends. Do you love comets? Do you love looking at and photographing comets? If you answered yes to either or both of those questions then the answer is yes, you should buy this book. Because it will make you fall in love with them all over again. But just be aware that it will make you very, very envious of the observers of past centuries – and very impatient for the next Great Comet to appear!

3 Responses

  1. Hi Ronald. A great review. I had just ordered the book today before reading your review, so now I really can’t wait! I have gathered a wealth of info on the great comets visible since antiquity and given several talks on the subject around New Zealand. It is a subject that astronomers & the public can really relate to. I missed Ikeya-seki & Bennett when I was younger but have seen everything since Comet West. Not always at their best mind you. West was just brightening in the evening twilight back in Feb ’76 before it put on its spectacular show for the N.H. a few weeks later. When I saw McNaught doing the same thing in reverse for the N.H. in Jan 2007 I thought that we would be in for something fantastic down here but never dreamed that McNaught would ‘out-West’ West so to speak. Hang in there Ronald. Another “Great” one will come the N.H.’s way, hopefully soon. Cheers, Ian Cooper.

  2. Thanks Ian, but Ronald is the book’s author😉 Hope you enjoy the book when it arrives. – Stuart Atkinson

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