COMET FEVER by Donald with Kenneth Mirvis Gropman


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The last appearance of Halley's comet in 1910 caused a worldwide panic. Gropman's relentlessly anecdotal account of Earth's last brush with ""comet fever"" sacrifices logic for a jumble of unrelated facts, legends and old newspaper headlines. The breathlessness of the title--which captures the tone of the book as a whole--unfortunately is less a sign of vitality than of respiratory distress. The author just couldn't decide whether to be scientific and responsible or portentous and pseudo-mystical … la Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Gropman solemnly invokes ""the aura of mystery that has always surrounded comets,"" for instance, right after offering several chapters of scientific background that debunk that ""aura."" Having things both ways produces many other contradictions. The chapter entitled ""The Curse of Halley's Comet"" is actually about how few disasters, given the rich resources of human history, can be laid to Halley's account: Julius Caesar's assassination, for instance, often said to have been ""predicted"" by the comet, actually occurred before the comet appeared. There is much interesting comet lore here (the ancient Chinese, for instance, who were attentive comet-watchers, called them ""broom stars""); but there is also some startling scientific lapses. (After going nova, a star hardly ""returns more or less to its original state""!) Gropman never admits whether he is trying to inform his readers or simply titillate them with the menace (promise?) of a rebirth of deadly ""comet fever"" in 1985-86. Disaster fans and survivalists are not likely to welcome the scientific material Gropman offers, while readers looking for a clear account of the facts behind the comet are likely to be puzzled by the grisly focus of later chapters on the human sacrifices and crucifixions said to have been ""caused"" by the comet back in 1910. This is not the worst of the recent spate of comet books (are they its true ""curse""?): it was researched, if not written, with care. Still, it's far from the best. For that, try Whipple's The Mystery of Comets (below).

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Simon & Schuster