Comet discovery overshadows other significant achievements
When the caller on a local open line radio show asked the expert guest (me), “can you tell us something about who this fellow Halley was?”, I could only talk about the Comet connection. Also, I did what you’re supposed to do when you don’t know the answer, I said that I did not know much about that.
I admit it, I do not find biographies of other people very interesting. It seems that many people do, and several kind folks have called me to fill me in on the life of Edmund Halley. So, for everyone who wants to know more about the man whose name pops into our minds every time we think of comets, here is some of the most interesting stuff I could find.
Halley lived from 1656 to 1742. Well, so far that’s pretty dull news. Actually it was a really neat time to be around if you’re interested in astronomy, especially if you lived in England. Halley was a colleague of Isaac Newton, who ranks with Einstein, Galileo, Planck, and a few others in developing the most significant concepts of how our universe works.
Almost all biographers point out that Halley’s many accomplishments are overshadowed by the single discovery that the comet he saw in 1682 was the same one that appeared in 1531 and 1607. It returned in 1758, as he predicted, and it has been called Halley’s comet ever since.
Two things about his life seem to be particularly interesting. First he was very enterprising, and this resulted in several successful exploits. Second, he was involved in some of the most famous disputes and astronomical history.
Halley seems to have a flair for doing things dramatically. In 1676, before he had a chance to gain his bachelor’s degree, he decided his astronomical career was not advancing quickly enough. He convinced John Flammsteed, the Astronomer Royal and founder of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, that there was a real need for a catalogue of the stars that can be observed only from the southern hemisphere, and that he was the person to do it. In addition he was able to obtain a letter from the King recommending that the East India Company provide him with a free round-trip to the island of St Helena. His wealthy dad gave him an allowance of £200 a year.
Two years later he was back in England, and soon published his catalogue. It made him immediately famous. The king commanded Oxford University to award him a master of arts degree, and the Royal Society elected at him a fellow. This was a class act.
When his father was murdered in 1684, things became tough for this privileged young astronomer. He was short of cash, and he was involved in litigation with his stepmother. In spite of the small annual salary of £30, he took the job of clerk of the Royal Society. In order to do this, he was required to resign his fellowship. This society sounds wonderful, but it was not well managed. They had chronic problems collecting membership fees, and they had just paid the bills to publish a book on the natural history of fish. Would you want to buy the book? No one else did. There was so little money left from that adventure that Edmund Halley had to accept copies of the book in lieu of part of his salary.
Halley was involved in several major disputes, all of which made astronomical history (or made it more interesting). Robert Hooke and Johannes Havelius were debating whether it was better to use telescopes for measuring stellar positions. Anyone can see that this is pretty exciting stuff. Anyhow, the Royal Society felt that the discussion was becoming so filled with acrimony that they dispatched Halley to spend some time observing with Havelius, and at the same time, find a way to smooth things over. The visit went well, but some years later we hear of Havelius claiming that Halley was sent to spy on his work. Imagine.
Isaac Newton’s great book the Principia, was edited by Halley. The Royal Society still had a large inventory of History of Fishes, and could not afford to publish Principia. Halley decided to finance the project himself. It seems that three people independently came to the same idea that is expressed in the book, the law of universal gravitation — Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, and Robert Hooke. When Hooke complained that he was not being recognized as the author of the idea, Newton decided not to proceed with writing. It was largely due to Halley’s efforts that these problems were sorted out and the book was finally finished and printed.
All of this makes Halley sound like a busy, but boring, academic. I was pleased to find the references said that he drank brandy like a sea captain, and swore like one. In 1698 he moved to London. Among his friends there was young Czar Peter of Russia (later to be called Peter the Great). One uninspired account said they often dined and discussed scientific matters long into the night. Another story has Pete in a wheelbarrow and Ed at the helm three sheets in the wind. It seems that the party wound through Deptford leaving a swath of broken hedges. Neither account is well documented.
In addition to his interest in comets, and his work with Newton on Principia, he made a number of significant contributions to astronomy and related disciplines. He described the universe that was infinite in extent, and suggested that some of a hazy patches in the sky were clouds of glowing gas. He also said that the so-called fixed stars actually were moving in space. Those were revolutionary ideas in those days.
For two years he was at sea plotting the variations of the magnetic field of the earth and producing a chart of the Atlantic Ocean. Not too surprisingly, he was able to talk the Admiralty into granting him the rank of captain, and giving him a ship. The job should have taken one year but things were delayed in the first year by a mutiny led by his first officer. After the court-martial, the second year was relatively uneventful.
His published works range from navigation, oceanography and under-sea diving, to astronomy, optics, archeology and statistical analysis. It is often suggested that if it were not for the comet, Halley would be as well remembered for his many other achievements. I am sure that he would be pleased that we hear his name and wonder about him every 75 years.
First published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday, January 4, 1986, page 27.
In 1986 Robert Ballantyne was director of the Manitoba Planetarium. His weekly column in the Winnipeg Free Press, called Sky Watch, focused on the return of Comet Halley.
© 1985 Robert Ballantyne and The Winnipeg Free Press