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1 Isaac Newton: Er... Charles Darwin?
1 Steve: Nah, mate. I'm Steve!
2 Isaac Newton: This isn't London in 1838?
2 Steve: Nah. It's Australia in 1987.
3 Isaac Newton: I fear something has gone terribly wrong with our time conveyance.
3 Edmond Halley: You are telling me, Mr Newton.
4 Steve: Hey! You're Edmond Halley! Crikey! Your comet was a real dud!
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I recall back in 1986 when Halley's Comet was about to return to view for the first time since 1910 (well before I was around). This was an incredibly exciting time, full of wonder and anticipation, espcially for someone who was still in the process of growing up and wanting to study astronomy as a career. This was the biggest astronomical event ever!
The media went nuts - this was the first apparition of the most famous of comets since mass media came into existence, and they weren't going to miss a huge opportunity like this. There were TV specials, astronomers were on the news, and there were scores of books - one of which, Comet by Carl Sagan, sits proudly on my bookshelf to this day.
The hype was incredible.
The reality was considerably less so. The 1986 return of Halley's Comet corresponded to a time when Earth was way around the other side of the sun, thus losing the comet in the sun's daytime glare for much of the time when it would have been at its brightest and most spectacular. The viewing conditions were so bad that, as a city dweller with no easy means to get out of the glare of the city lights and into the dark of the countryside, and despite the fact that I was keenly excited by it, I actually never saw the comet at all.
It was a great disapointment. Never mind the fact that the European Space Agency's Giotto probe had a gloriously successful mission, passing within 600 kilometres of the comet and returning the first ever close up images of a cometary nucleus, providing fascinating insights and evidence on cometary structure. That was exciting and cool, but I still live with the bitter memory of shattered anticipation, that I never got to see the comet with my own eyes.
Many, many people across the world, built up by the media hype and the fame of the comet, were no doubt similarly disappointed. But how many of them really care about it any more now?
I decided a long time ago that I am determined to live to 2061, by which time I will be an old man. Older than anyone I'm aware of in my family has lived, but by no means an improbable age. I want to live that long so I can finally see Halley's Comet. In 2061, it will return once again, and this time it will be closer to Earth, and bright enough to see.
Even from the city, with the eyes of an old man.
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