The Portents of ISON

Comets have long been regarded as omens of extraordinary portent. Novae, eclipses, conjunctions, anything seen in the sky can serve in this role, but bright comets have always held a special awe.

C/2007N3 Lulin
Comet C/2007 N3 Lulin on the morning of 22 Feb 2009
Even today those who seek signs are quick to seize upon any unusual astronomical event. A few months ago it was meteors, events over Chelyabinsk grabbing the attention. With ISON entering the inner solar system the attention shifts.

Bright comets are invariably seen as omens by some. History is littered with stories of comets and prophesies. This has not changed, there are many recent examples… Hale-Bopp, Hyakutake, Elenin, each has been used to make all manner of wild predictions. Comet C/2012 S1 ISON certainly fits the role. It will most likely be quite bright, easily visible without optical aid. It may even be visible in the daytime.

The comet will not be bright in the sky for a few more months, but already those in the conspiracy community have latched on to it. I will forego linking to these sites or videos here. If you really must see for yourself, just go to YouTube and search for “ISON”. What you find is an amazing potpourri of dire predictions and conspiracies. Visiting these websites or watching the videos is an exercise in exasperation. They say what?

Some of the videos are well produced, with slick graphics and good sound. Most are far more amateurish. There are common themes in disaster… That the comet will somehow disturb the Earth, that the comet’s near pass to the Sun will somehow effect the Sun. The debris tail left behind by the comet is of particular interest to some. I need to examine that claim more closely, perhaps we will get a nice meteor shower?

Astronomical events become entangled in a melange of other conspiracy theories… There are multiple references to the biblical Wormwood Star and the events of Revelations. And, of course, there are always aliens or one world government conspiracies. A little of everything, you can pick your favorite from the pile. Perhaps try watching “ISON, The Pope, Vatican, And Aliens”.

Of course NASA is covering something up. They always seem to blame NASA, even though NASA is only one of many organizations doing solar system research. Why they do not blame the IAU Minor Planet Center of coverup is always a mystery to me. It is the MPC that keeps tabs on comets and asteroids through a network of observers and telescopes across the globe. It is the MPC that verifies the discovery of objects like C/2012 S1 and assigns the official designation. It is the MPC that publishes the orbital elements that astronomers use to know where the object is and will be.

How can those who write and produce this stuff actually believe any of it? Have they become so detached from reality, wrapped in a cocoon of self reinforcing nonsense, to the point that anything becomes believable? I do not have to speculate too far here, psychologists have proven that this sort of delusion is not only possible, but very common.

I also wonder if there is a more malign element among those that produce the websites and YouTube videos. Those who do not necessarily believe, but produce ever more wild theories just because they can gather an audience. Online communities like YouTube certainly encourage this sort of behavior.

It is in reading the comments that I truly despair. No matter how wild the claim there are those who believe them. The arguments between believers get even more detached from reality than the original videos.

Hubble C/2012 S1 ISON
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope provides a close-up look of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1). Credit:NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li
I have a view behind the curtain that dispels many of the theories that float about. In some sense I exist among “the establishment” that these conspiracy theorists blame for the cover up. My position at a world leading observatory gives me a view into the universe that is wide open. There is nothing that stops me from wandering down the hall from my office and spending time in the operations rooms where the science is being done. Where the images from the telescopes appear raw on the screens.

Even worse, a good chunk of my paycheck does come from NASA, the evil organization responsible for covering up so much. It is clear that anything I say is hopelessly discredited. Oh well.

I understand that governments, even our US government, are not above playing dark games. Recent revelations about NSA monitoring of our electronic communications is a good example of this. I also understand that no true conspiracy can stand for long, there are still good people in the system willing to expose the real conspiracies.

From time to time curiosity gets the better of my revulsion and I watch a video or two. It is always worth a good laugh. It also bothers me that so many people believe this trash. I despair for my species. Rising above superstition and pseudoscience is proving to be a real problem of the age.

I will make a prediction, I feel pretty confident here. Comet C/2012 S1 ISON will come and go, our world and society will muddle on. The conspiracy community will latch onto some new portent, the comet forgotten. At least those of us who watch the skies will have a nice show.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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