JACKSON, Miss. (BP)–“Lights in the firmament of the heaven,” according to Genesis 1:4 (KJV), are “for signs, and for seasons … .” So what do we make of the Hale-Bopp Comet, the most spectacular comet of our century? Might the heavenly wonder signify something?
In USA Today March 12, Paul Hoversten wrote that millennium fans regard the Hale-Bopp Comet as a sign of good luck for the next 1,000 years, while some say it portends the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelation. Note also the last time this comet made an appearance was 2000 B.C., when Babylonian astronomers were just charting the courses of the five known planets. Also, if the true birth of Christ were 3 B.C., the comet marks the end of the 2nd millennium A.D.
Astronomer Hugh Ross in “Journey to Truth” (1993, p. 3), said the word selected in the original text for the Christmas star, if it were a natural phenomenon, could have described a star, a planet, a comet, an asteroid, a meteor or an exploding star (a nova or supernova). Ross favored a recurring nova. However, if it were a comet, then the Hale- Bopp Comet illustrates how wise men in the east could see a star in the east and follow it west to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Hale-Bopp first appeared in the eastern sky before sunrise and moved closer to the horizon each morning. Any ancient stargazer would realize such a comet would reappear in the western sky just after sunset (as has the Hale- Bopp Comet). The magi could calculate the western rising and travel toward that spot. The comet would continue to rise in the western sky each night until it stood above their destination. The Hale-Bopp Comet has a sharply defined, bright coma that resembles a star and a readily visible tail. It will be its brightest on April 1 (yes, April Fools’ Day).
The most famous comet, Halley’s Comet, appears every 75 years. It appeared in 70 A.D. before the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. Josephus (as translated by Wm. Whiston, p. 848) saw the comet as a sign from God against the city’s Jewish defenders and described it as “a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city … .” Halley’s Comet also appeared in 451 A.D. when Attila the Hun and his hordes were defeated by the Romans and Visigoths at the battle of Chalons and again in 1066 A.D. when William of Normandy conquered England.
The brightness of the Hale-Bopp Comet has been compared to the Great Comet of 1811. So what important event occurred on this date? While a number of events could be cited, one was very important to North America’s Mississippi Valley region. It was the great New Madrid Earthquake of Dec. 16, 1811. Earthquakes continued in this region with strong shocks occurring again on Jan. 23 and Feb. 7 of 1812. Some of these shocks made church bells ring as far away as Boston.
The earthquake risk is so great along the New Madrid Seismic Zone that it is constantly monitored by a network of seismographs. Emergency management agencies and geological surveys in seven states have formed a consortium called CUSUC with the CU pronounced as Q. This is an acronym for the Central Unites States Earthquake Consortium.
Independent scientist Iben Browning caused widespread concern in predicting a possible strong earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone to occur on Dec. 3, 1990. The earthquake never happened, but Browning’s warning caused considerable disruption and expense to the region in unnecessary precautions.
A new comet comparable to the Great Comet of 1811 does not necessarily mean strong earthquakes will follow. Scientists report no connection between comets and earthquakes. Nevertheless, people have been prone to assign meanings to comets with the luxury of hindsight as in the case with the appearance of Halley’s Comet. 1997 may be remembered as the year of the comet — but only time will tell what else.
Dockery is director of the Mississippi Office of Geology’s surface geology division and a member of Pocahontas (Miss.) Baptist Church.