Book Review – The Greatest Comets in History: Broom Stars and Celestial Scimitars

With all of the talk about comets this year, I decided to pick up the book The Greatest Comets in History: Broom Stars and Celestial Scimitars by David Seargent – part of Springer Publishing’s Astronomers’ Universe series. The Greatest Comets in History chronicles the greatest of the great comets all the way back to ancient times starting with the great comet of 372 B.C., Aristotle’s comet. Before getting into specific comets, the book explains the method used for classifying comets as being one of the “greatest of the great” and then provides an introductory chapter about the nature of comets. The book also contains special chapters with in-depth coverage of Halley’s Comet, The Kreutz Sungrazers, and daylight comets. The book was a good read overall; however, the book can become a bit monotonous at times since some comets contain only easily forgettable technical data such as estimates of magnitude, tail length, and perihelion date and distance.

One of the things I really enjoyed about reading The Greatest Comets in History was how it illustrated the pace at which technology has advanced. Each chapter arranges comets in chronological order discussing the observations of each one. There are periods of hundreds or thousands of years where the observational techniques and general knowledge about comets barely increased at all. In contrast, we’ve progressed from photographing comets to intercepting them with space probes in less than 100 years! It was also interesting to note that the ancient civilizations of eastern Asia such as China and Korea recorded most of the earliest comet observations.

Chapter 2 is an in-depth look at Halley’s Comet and was my favorite chapter of the book. No other comet in history has had such a dramatic impact on civilization as Halley’s Comet. The chapter starts out discussing Halley’s Comet in general and then recounts the story of Edmond Halley’s calculation of the comet’s orbit and prediction of its return. The chapter then goes on to show how comet observations all the way back to 87 B.C. can be correlated to Halley’s Comet. A very fun read.

Chapters 3 – 5 chronologically cover the greatest comets from 372 B.C. all the way up to Comet C/2006 P1 (McNaught). Each chapter covers a specific date range with Chapter 3 covering 372 B.C. – A.D. 905, Chapter 4 covering 1000 – 1800, and Chapter 5 covering 1800 – Present (2007). With a few notable exceptions, reading about the comets up until the 18th century was kind of a snooze fest due to the lack of recorded information. Magnitude and tail length estimates and perihelion dates/distances for comet after comet quickly become a jumbled mess of facts and figures with nothing exceptional to anchor them in memory. Progressing through the book, and therefore time, we start to get much more interesting information about how each comet affected our scientific understanding as well as its impact on the general population. I especially enjoyed reading about the more recent comets starting with Comet C/1975 V1 (West). The author himself has observed most of these later comets.

The Greatest Comets in History is a fun and interesting read if comets interest you. It has a lot of good information about comets and the history of comet observation. Reading through the observational data for each comet can get a little monotonous at times, but overall the book is very engaging and I think the avid amateur or armchair astronomer will really enjoy reading it. The book certainly enhanced my understanding and appreciation of comets.

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