Of all the things that happen in the heavens, nothing grips the human spirit like the approach of Halley's Comet. Generation after generation and civilization after civilization has been beguiled and bewitched by the apparition of Halley's Comet. Now it's headed our way again, the 30th time since 240 B.C. that it will be seen by the people living on Earth.
PBS' Washington affiliate, WETA, has done us all a favor by producing a one-hour documentary it calls "Comet Halley," to be aired at 9 tonight on Channels 26, 32 and Maryland Public TV stations. The film not only skillfully traces the history of Halley's Comet, but also gives us a lively lesson on why and how the most famous comet in the sky came to be named after 18th-century British astronomer Sir Edmond Halley. We learn quite a bit about Halley, too, this Renaissance man who predicted the comet would return to pass Earth every 76 years and who also found time to invent the diving bell to look for sunken ships and nag the great Isaac Newton into publishing the "Principia," which changed the world by giving us Newton's Law of Gravity.
The film lets some of the world's best-known astronomers tell us about the plans they're making to observe Halley's Comet this visit. The camera takes us to Arizona's Kitt Peak National Observatory and California's Palomar Observatory, where astronomer Ed Danielson first saw the comet in 1982 when it was still more than 1 billion miles from Earth. The film travels around the world, to Halley's native Great Britain; to Germany, where the codirector of the International Halley Watch talks about the mounting excitement of the astronomical community; and to Mauna Kea in Hawaii, where an observatory sits on top of an extinct volcano that's so high it's "difficult to breathe here" and so barren that "astronauts came here to train for their trips to the moon."
The film even serves as a short history lesson. Example: The medieval church used comets to "scare the hell out of its parishioners." And one Lutheran minister went so far as to describe comets as being made of nothing less than the "thick smoke of human sins."
When astronomers such as Harvard's Fred Whipple and the University of Chicago's John Simpson are not explaining the Halley Watch, the film is narrated by James Earl Jones, whose marvelously rich voice brought Darth Vader to life and whose deeply fluid tones give "Comet Halley" a fresh dimension. The animation of the comet's flight through time and space gives Jones a well-done backdrop for his narration.
"Comet Halley" is at its best when explaining why comets are important. For example, it might have been a comet striking the Earth that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago; an object six miles across that could have been a comet may have hit the earth with a force equal to 100 million megatons, sending so much dust and debris into the atmosphere that no sunlight reached the ground for years on end. But if a comet took away the dinosaurs, a comet may also have given us the seeds of life by raining the organic chemicals on a barren Earth that triggered the birth of our existence.
Narrator Jones ends "Comet Halley" on a up note. "Don't fail to tell your children of Halley's next visit in 2061," he says. "And tell them to tell their children, too."
In addition to WETA, "Comet Halley" was produced by the Planetary Society, Japan's Asahi Broadcasting Corp. and independent producer John Wilhelm. It is the first venture into film for Wilhelm, former science correspondent for Time magazine and former managing editor of Science 80 magazine. It is a solid start.