Edmond Halley and the Ginger Jar

“What do you think this is?”

The question concerned a feature in the decoration of an early-twentieth-century Chinese ginger jar which had sat on a kitchen bench for several days, having been purchased from a central Victorian charity shop. It had been a lucky find on the way to a race meeting and perhaps an omen the horse might do well that day.

The blue brushwork in question portrays a pleasant eastern-looking landscape beside a lake. A lone fisherman casts a line and there are pagodas and a Chinese junk in the distance. It is the disturbance in the otherwise empty sky that provoked the question. This could be best described as resembling a tilted figure 9—a circle with a tail—with two rows of expressive short lines beneath. These are the sort that might be used in a cartoon to suggest agitation or reverberation, say for instance, those that might emphasise the loud ringing of the bells on a comic-book alarm clock. Completely at odds with the general feeling of serenity conveyed by the rest of the jar’s design, surely it must be a crude attempt at representation of a comet?

Some quick research confirmed that Halley’s Comet had made one of its many and regular visitations not long before the jar was probably made. In 1910 the comet’s approach had been very close to the earth and had provided a spectacular display. In fact, on May 19 the earth had passed through the comet’s tail, which can extend for more than one hundred million kilometres. A French astronomer at the time, Camille Flammarion (right), made the alarming prediction that the levels of cyanogen in the tail “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet”. Worldwide panic buying of gas masks ensued and in China itself, the missionary James Hutson wrote, “The people believe that it indicates calamity … and a change of dynasty” (the Xinhai Revolution brought about the downfall of the last dynasty some months later in 1911). Hutson elaborated: “many did not even drink water as it was rumoured that pestilential vapour was being poured down upon the earth”.

Those of us who can remember the comet’s next dismal showing, in 1986, might find such reactions surprising. Circumstances that year were the most unfavourable yet recorded, with the earth and the comet being on opposite sides of the sun. This year, on December 9, 2023, the comet will reach the farthest and slowest point in its orbit of the sun, as it travels in the opposite direction from that of the planets, at 3218.688 kilometres per hour. On that date it will be some 5.2 billion kilometres away from the earth: about as far away as Pluto. Rest assured the comet should provide us with a better view when it next visits in 2061, though not anything like that experienced in 837, where, at its closest recorded approach to earth, the tail extended across an estimated sixty degrees of the sky.

This essay appears in November’s Quadrant.
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Observed and recorded by the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Babylonians, Halley’s Comet has often been seen as a portent of death—Marcus Vipsanus Agrippa (12 BC) being one example—and, as we have seen, defeat (Attila the Hun being another example of this in 451). It has been cited as having been what became known as the Star of Bethlehem, and Giotto—who would have witnessed the 1301 visitation—placed a prominent fiery comet above the manger in his painting Adoration of the Magi in 1305. Earlier, the 1066 appearance is famously recorded on the Bayeaux Tapestry and the medieval historian William of Malmsbury tells of a monk at his monastery who remembered crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star: “‘You’ve come have you?’ he said. ‘You’ve come, you source of many tears to many mothers … I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.’”

Another French astronomer, Nicolas-Lois de Lacaille, thought it only fair that the comet should be named after his English counterpart, Edmond Halley, in 1759. It was Halley (left, and correctly pronounced Hawley), with the aid of his colleague and friend Isaac Newton’s laws pertaining to gravity and motion, who had recognised the comet as being periodic (Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, 1705). Calculations showed that the comet that appeared in 1682 shared not only almost the same orbital elements as that of a comet observed and studied by Petrus Apianus in 1531, but also that which had been observed and recorded in 1607 by Johannes Kepler. These three comets, Halley decided, must be one and the same: a significant discovery. Though Tycho Brahe had determined in 1577 that comets must travel from beyond the moon, from the time of Aristotle it had been largely held that the paths of comets were limited to the earth’s atmosphere and that they travelled in a straight line.

Halley had been confident enough to predict a return of the comet late in 1758, and if he was correct, it would be the first time that anything other than a planet could be shown to have orbited the sun. Halley died in 1741, but his comet did live up to his expectations. It arrived on Christmas Day in the year predicted, and was first observed by a German farmer and amateur astronomer, Johann Georg Palitzsch, who would be rewarded by having an asteroid named after him as well as a crater and valley on the moon.

By any measure Halley’s scientific career was extraordinary. From the remote and tiny island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean—just off the west coast of Africa and at that time the southernmost point on the globe under English rule—he produced, between 1676 and 1677 (and still in his early twenties), the first catalogue of the stars of the southern sky. On his return to England, the following year he produced an appropriate map, which was published as the Catalogus stellarium australium. Halley also encouraged, funded and oversaw the printing of the three volumes of Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica in 1687. Newton acknowledged him in his preface to the work as “the most acute and universally learned Mr Edmond Halley” and made it clear that “it was through his solicitations that it came to be published”.

At the time Halley was experimenting with diving bells. He and three others descended to a depth of eighteen metres in the River Thames and eventually remained there for up to four hours using an ingenious arrangement of air-filled barrels. He had already made the first estimate as to the size of atoms and refined John Graunt’s tables of predictable patterns of longevity and death within defined cohorts. This exercise led towards the establishment of calculably accurate insurance premiums in 1693. As the seventeenth century rolled into the eighteenth, his research into the transit of Venus would later impact greatly on the career of Captain James Cook. Halley’s attempts in 1720, along with the antiquarian William Stukeley (from whom we have the story of Newton and the falling apple), to determine the age of Stonehenge based on available magnetic data were wide of the mark, but the idea of dating objects by such scientific methods signified a revolutionary way of thinking.

An insight into Halley’s ability to think creatively is evidenced by his ingenious solution to a problem that had been posed by a fellow member of the Royal Society. How would one establish the exact acreage of land of each English county? Halley rose to the challenge by procuring a large map of England and then cut from it the largest complete circle possible. His circle had a diameter that accounted for sixty-nine and one-third miles within the map and therefore an area accounting for 9,665,000 acres. Next, he weighed his circle and compared its weight to that of the weight of the circle combined with the weight of the rest of the map. His circle weighed one quarter of that of all of England which meant that the total acreage of England must be 36,660,000 acres, a figure that varies by just over 1 per cent from the latest modern computation. Finding the acreage of individual counties was then a simple exercise. Cut them from the map, weigh them and do the simple arithmetic. Easy when you know how!

For all of Halley’s achievements as a scientist—and the outline above has been but a cursory glance—he is fundamentally remembered for his comet. In his 1909 autobiography, Mark Twain recorded:

I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming up again next year and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came together, they must go out together.”

He died the day after the comet reached its closest point to earth during the 1910 visitation. Maybe the decorator of the ginger jar arrived at the idea of spicing up his design during this time as well.

But what of the horse? The aptly named Freewheeler ran a creditable second in his race at Kyneton. The trainer was only mildly disappointed, and explained that a better showing might be expected next time.

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote on Jane Austen in the October issue.


4 thoughts on “Edmond Halley and the Ginger Jar

  • padraic says:

    You have to admire geniuses like Halley with his method of determining the acreage of the English counties. I remember seeing a similar example of genius when I read years ago how Edison determined the volume inside a light bulb when others were using mathematics to try and determine the answer using calculus and other maths to come up with an answer. Edison then took a bulb, made a small hole in it and filled it with water and then poured the water into a measuring cylinder and (given that the specific gravity of water is 1) determined the volume in the measuring cylinder was the internal volume of the bulb. The mathematical way of determining the volume gave a result that was inaccurate.

  • Paul says:

    Great quote from Mark Twain:
    “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came together, they must go out together”.
    Must learn more about Mark Twain.
    His “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” is great writing.

  • STD says:

    What did Edmund Halley and his extraterrestrial life and his namesake comet have in common?
    They both obey the rudimentary law of all matter-the laws of creation-the theoretical and abstract laws of existence, as they relate to physics and the partner in that truth and it’s expressionist dwelling place, mathematics- and at the heart of this lays the unwritten law of gravity as it is related to the truths in Genesis- which draws all of creation to itself- back to itself- the quantum self- the heart of matter- understanding -the mind who’s travels are out of sight of the structural DNA of the now naked eye which searches the abyss of the cosmic heaven in search of the unknown-the knower of the soul, that lays in the far infinite reach of the space of the constant-the eternal mind-through which all thought is known as justice(truth and is truth), only to return again, outside of time-(eternal time)- that is not of our choosing, but is chosen if you will-you are just- justice in understanding, therefore reverential – as all is of your making ,as all truth belongs to you, even in the periodicals of the living chemistry- the DNA of reasoning that which till the moment of realisation had been previously far, and under-stood.
    Oh can you abide-will-come again?
    If you the greatest polymath are truly right- we wait in the form, the true form -abstraction-the obscurity(incomprehensibility) of the abstract -our living soul, and it is here we graciously await on the painter’s return, the return of faith and hope- in which we are re-created in both-the eternal resolve.
    Science therefore is providence,your providential key that unlocks the mystery, but just like the beauty of woman, it remains even more illusive. When we think we know more, we know less (there being even more to know)…..Chesterton was absolutely right….paradox is a real place…..God seems to be a complete contradiction in this the realm of worldly knowledge. In the end though it is the eternal God who has the final say…..and we will meet again as sure as night meets day.
    There is truly more to this than meets the unbelieving eve – or the faithless hope of Saint Thomas- as faith has always been something that is felt, just ask Caravaggio about the incredulity of Saint Thomas- we truly see when we feel ( when we reach for the truth).

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