Comet literature

A particular strength of BYU’s History of Science Collection is a collection of over 80 European pamphlets and monographs on comets, dating from the early 16th to early 18th centuries.  These works were written by theologians, philosophers, and scientists, and as such, approach the subject of comets from conflicting perspectives.  For some, the appearance of a comet was a bad omen.  Christopher Ness, a London minister, discussed the comet of 1680 in his book The Signs of the Times, asserting that a comet “signifies Drought, and portends War” (an illustration from Ness’s book is seen above).  For astronomers, including amateur observers, the appearance of a comet provided an opportunity for sustained scientific study.  Many individuals observed the path of comets and published their work in small pamphlets or in larger, book-length astronomical treatises.  In distributing their observations, they disseminated scientific explanations of comets among scholarly circles and general audiences.  For example, Michael Mästlin, a German astronomer, demonstrated that the 1577 comet was further away from the earth than the moon, disproving the widely-held belief that comets were located in the earth’s upper atmosphere.  English astronomer Edmund Halley and Polish astronomer Johann Hevelius studied the five comets that appeared in the latter half of the 17th century to determine the comets’ parabolic and elliptic orbits around the sun.

Special Collections’ comet literature can be found in the library catalog by performing a subject search using the phrase “comets – early works to 1800.”  A printed bibliography of comet literature is V. F. Brüning’s Bibliographie der Kometenliteratur, which can be found in Special Collections’ reference collection.

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