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Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology


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Table of Contents

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS xi ACKNOWLEDGMENTS xv INTRODUCTION Shared Culture, Separate Spaces 3 High and Low Culture 5 The Verbal and Visual in Popular Culture 10 The Culture of Comets 12 PART ONE: SIGNS OF THE TIMES 15 CHAPTER I Ancient Signs 17 Physical Theories of Comets 17 Tokens of Doom 20 Political Messages and Means 24 CHAPTER II Monsters and the Messiah 27 Popular and Patristic Views of Comets 27 Monsters and Their Messages 30 Monstrous Comets in Scripture 31 Star of Bethlehem, Herald of Judgment 38 Time of the End 46 Reformation in Religion 47 CHAPTER III Divination 51 Color 51 Conjunctions 53 Passage through Zodiac and Prominent Constellations 53 Astrological Houses and Cardinal Orientations 56 Pointing of Tail 58 Position of Nucleus 58 Shapes and Sizes 58 Motion 60 Duration 61 Historical Induction 65 CHAPTER IV Portents and Politics 66 In Streets and Alehouses 66 God on Their Side 68 Prophecies and Propaganda 70 PART TWO: NATURAL CAUSES 89 CHAPTER V From Natural Signs to Proximate Causes 91 New Attitudes toward Nature and the Recovery of Classical Science 91 Aristotle and Terrestrial Corruption 92 Ptolemy and the Power of Mars 94 Stepping-Stones from Symptoms to Causes 96 Critics and Strategies 99 CHAPTER VI The Decline of Cometary Divination 104 Astronomical Reforms 104 Epistemological Critics 114 Shift in Priorities and Signs of Decline 117 Social Reasons for the Decline 123 PART THREE: WORLD REFORMATION 131 CHAPTER VII Comets, Transmutations, and World Reform in Newton's Thought 133 Celestial Mechanics of Comets 135 Pristine Truths and Political Corruption 138 Transmutations and Perpetual Interchange 142 Fire, Water, and a Heavenly Physiology 148 "Revolutions in the Heavenly Bodies" 149 Comets, Teleology, and Newton's Appropriation of Comet Lore 153 CHAPTER VIII Halley's Comet Theory, Noah's Flood, and the End of the World 156 Interest in Orbits 156 Halley's Theory of the Deluge 162 The End of the World 164 The Benefits of Comets 166 The Scientific Response 167 Ecclesiastical Criticism 168 Halley's Alleged Freethinking in Political Context 171 The Satirists' Barbs 174 PART FOUR: COMET LORE AND COSMOGONY 179 CHAPTER IX Refueling the Sun and Planets 181 Circulation of Vital Matter 181 Critics 183 Stoking the Stellar Fires 186 CHAPTER X Revolution and Evolution within the Heavens 188 Come Hell or High Water 189 From Creation to Cosmogony 198 CONCLUDING REMARKS Popular Culture and Elite Science 216 APPENDIX Recent Resurgence of Cometary Catastrophism 222 NOTES 225 BIBLIOGRAPHY 309 INDEX 353

About the Author

Sara J. Schechner is a scholar-in-residence at the American Institute of Physics and a research fellow at the National Museum of American History. After many years as the Curator of the History of Astronomy Collection at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum in Chicago, she is now the principal of Gnomon Research, a firm specializing in science exhibits, educational outreach, and collections-based research.


"Comet literature is extensive but, to the best of my knowledge no previous work has quite the grasp of this one. There are some books dealing with restricted subjects that seem certain to become standard references for many years to come. This is one, and it should be in every serious scientific library."--Patrick Moore, The Times Higher Education Supplement "A work of serious scholarship that is rich in fascinating material... Judiciously selected quotations and fifty three illustrations, some exceptionally striking, add to the pleasure of reading this very engaging story, which is filled with surprises, ironies, and fresh insights."--Michael J. Crowe, Physics Today "Beautifully illustrated, full of fascinating quotations, and blessed with 126 pages of notes and references. I enjoyed it immensely."--David W. Hughes, Observatory "[This book] is accurate, comprehensive, and should make an important contribution to the history of astronomy."--Donald Yeomans, Sky & Telescope "This book is not a general history of comets... [T]he author is concerned primarily with the perception of comets throughout history. It is a scholarly well-illustrated and accurate work... [T]he author does a fine job."--Donald Yeomans, Nature "Every now and again a scholar comes along who successively maps out a novel idea, and does so in a compelling way. This well-written book is assuredly one such occasion and I recommend it to every scholar, no matter what their discipline."--Noel Grey, The European Legacy

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