The Mathematics of Catastrophe

When Halley, Newton and Whiston Explored the Heavenly Dangers

The seventeenth-century scientists Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, and William Whiston were not, it seems, as staid and steady in their creation of the new mathematics and physics as we might have thought. They were virtually Velikovskian in their belief that a comet caused the Biblical Flood. Even more wildly, they believed that the comet that caused the Flood also played a starring role in the creation of the world and will play a catastrophic role in bringing our world to an end.

In December 1680, a comet whose size and brightness had unsettled Europeans for weeks disappeared when it flew close to the sun. At the end of the year, a comet appeared on the other side of the sun.

England’s astronomer-royal John Flamsteed thought the two comets were one comet and that it had simply flown across the face of the sun. Sir Isaac Newton thought it must be two comets. Then Newton reconsidered. After some months, and many calculations, he declared that it was a single comet that had made a hairpin curve around the other side of the sun.

Thus, ever so slowly, was born the idea that comets revolve around the sun like planets (a few savants had earlier suggested it). Newton worked hard, with help from Edmund Halley, to create the mathematics that would prove this and to determine the orbital period of this comet—how long it took to go around the sun. It wasn’t until 1692 that Newton and Halley were sure of their facts, and not until 1692 that they decided that the orbital period of the comet was 575-1/4 years.

Halley had also been busy with a comet he had observed in 1682. He thought it might be the same comet as that observed by Apian in 1531 and Kepler and Longomontanus in 1607. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that Halley worked out its orbital period: roughly 76 years. He predicted it would return in 1758, and he was the first astronomer to make such a prediction about a comet. It did return in 1758, sixteen years after Halley’s death, and was promptly named Halley’s Comet.

The Great Comet of 1680 was the first comet discovered by telescope; it was subsequently named after Gottfried Kirch, the German astronomer who had discovered it. From a philosophical point of view, Kirch’s Comet (also known today as C/1680 V1) was more intriguing to Newton and his contemporaries than Halley’s Comet. This was on account of its orbital period of 575-1/4 years; the dates of its previous visits to earth invited beguiling speculations. In fact, Newton, Halley, and William Whiston, the astronomer who succeeded Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, decided that this was the comet that had caused the Flood.

The belief that a comet had caused the Flood was common in Newton’s time. An exact date had even been assigned to this event: Thursday, November 27, 2304 BCE—1,700 years after the Creation of the World. This belief goes back thousands of years. The Tractate Brakhot of the Babylonian Talmud declares that a comet (or a planet, or perhaps a star) caused the Flood: “When the Holy One . . . wanted to bring a flood upon the world, He took two stars from the Khima and brought a flood upon the world.” Perhaps it was because of the unconscious memory of some primordial disaster involving a comet—or perhaps it was just that people didn’t know what comets were, their arrivals were unexpected, and they often looked ferocious—but comets were regarded as harbingers of doom and deliverers of disaster from the dawn of history (until Newton and Halley demythologized them). Chronicles 1 in the Old Testament mentions a sign that resembles a comet that, slashing through the sky like a sword, was a warning from God to King David not to conduct an illegal census; scholars think this was Halley’s Comet. Halley’s Comet appeared again in 1066. When the Normans defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings, the comet was given the blame. It streaked across the sky in 1456 when Constantinople fell to the Turks, and was again found guilty. In that year, Pope Calixtus III (1378–1458) excommunicated the comet as a dangerous heretic, adding a prayer to the Ave Maria: “Lord save us from the devil, the Turks, and the comet.”

Over the past dozen years, proof has emerged that the tails of comets can carry earth-like water. In 2000, a long-extinguished comet, LINEAR, broke up and released huge quantities of water; analyzing the water from afar, scientists found that its isotopic signature resembled that of Earth water. In 2010, a NASA spacecraft, scanning the comet Hartley 2, discovered it contained water whose deuterium-to-hydrogen level resembled Earth’s. Astronomers had long suspected that cometary impacts billions of years ago might have provided some of the water in Earth’s oceans. These two findings were the first evidence this might be the case.

Three hundred years earlier, Isaac Newton had advanced the idea that water contained in the tails of comets might regularly replenish Earth’s water supply. He believed the earth continually lost water through the “diminution caused in the humid parts by vegetation and putrefaction… by which means the dry parts of the planets must continually increase, and the fluids diminish, nay in sufficient length of time be exhausted, if not supplied by some such means.” Comets might make up the difference; Sir Isaac believed the tails of comets carried water and that this played an important role in replenishing the earth’s water supplies.

Sir Isaac did not find it unthinkable that a huge comet, virtually colliding with the earth, could drown our planet in its tail.

Edmund Halley scoured ancient literature to find out what Kirch’s Comet (it is also called Newton’s Comet) looked like on its previous visits and what it might have been up to. The reign of the Greek King Ogyges, thought to have been in about 1767 BCE, was often associated with a great flood; the Roman historian Varro (116–27 BCE) recorded that at that year the planet Venus “changed her color, size, figure and course; a prodigy without example either in past or succeeding years.” In recent years the catastrophist thinker Immanuel Velikovsky has interpreted this quote to refer to a huge comet rushing by Earth (and wreaking much havoc) before it became the planet Venus; Edmund Halley thought Varro’s lines were a reference to the passing in 1767 BCE of the Great Comet of 1680.

In 1193 BCE, five hundred and seventy six years later, the fly-past of the earth of a huge comet was “darkly implied,” wrote Edward Gibbon (summarizing Halley’s findings) in “the fable of Electra, the seventh of the Pleiades, who have been reduced to six since the time of the Trojan War. That nymph, the wife of Dardanus, was unable to support the ruin of her country—she abandoned the dances of her sister orbs, fled from the zodiac to the north pole, and obtained, from her disheveled locks, the name of the comet.”

A number of ancient historians recorded the passage of a huge comet in 618 BCE. An equally commanding comet blazed through the skies when Julius Caesar was assassinated in March of 44 BCE. The comet returned in AD 531, the fifth year of the Roman Emperor Justinian’s reign, when it lit up the night sky for three weeks. In both 618 BCE and 44 BCE, the sun noticeably paled when the comet flew past. It was back again in AD 1106, and is mentioned in chronicles in both Europe and China.  It returned in 1680, enabling the best minds of the newly “scientized” age to unlock the secrets of cometary motion.

Halley had no doubt that a comet had caused the Flood. He commented in 1694 that while the Genesis account passed only “for the Remains of a much fuller Account of the Flood,” he still accepted that “we may be fully assured that such a Deluge has been.” But he was uncertain whether that comet had been the comet of 1680.

William Whiston, less cautious than Halley, had no doubt that the Great Comet of 1680 caused the Flood. He dated this event to 2242 BCE, a little off the date usually given for the Flood of 2304 BCE. This enabled Whiston to creep a little closer to the full 575-year orbital period of Kirch’s Comet. But Whiston still fell short by 100 years; the year 2242 comes 475 years, not 575 years, after the date 1767 BCE. This discrepancy doesn’t seem to have bothered Whiston, and it’s likely he ascribed it to the fact that at the time of the Flood, and for a while after, the earth spun more swiftly on its axis (the longevity of the patriarchs, Whiston thought, offered proof of this).

Whiston went further. He believed the Great Comet of 1680 had also been present at the Creation of the World. This imaginative and volatile astronomer thought Kirch’s Comet had been “the chief natural mechanism behind the formation of our single Earth out of a confus’d Chaos.” The giant comet had separated the light from the darkness. Whiston even suggested that the heat left over from the comet’s presence at Creation lingered on and somehow played a role in the Flood, in which the comet itself played the decisive role. The Creation was generally considered to have taken place 1700 years before the Flood. And it is true that if we add together three orbits of the Great Comet, we arrive at the figure 1725, which is only 25 years off 1700. Certainly Whiston considered 25 years to be of no account.

Newton also thought that a comet had been present at the Creation, but we do not know if he thought that was the Great Comet of 1680. But Whiston, in giving Kirch’s Comet a starring role in both the Creation and the Flood, was not finished; he also gave it a catalytic role in the Apocalypse, and there are indications that Newton shared this belief. Whiston declared publicly, and often, that this rogue planetoid would create exactly the same sort of havoc as is described in Joel 2:30-31, Matt. 24:29, and Luke 21:25-26.”

If we add 575 years to the year AD 1680, we get to AD 2255. If the same comet that caused the Flood were going to trigger off the Apocalypse, was Whiston predicting the end of the world for 2255? Or 575 years later? It seems not, for Whiston was inconsistent: Using the same analysis of the Book of Revelation as Newton had used, he declared to one and all that the world would end in 1736. It didn’t happen, and the brilliant astronomer had to put up with public humiliation and a huge loss of credibility.

Toward the end of his life, Isaac Newton ruminated somberly that the Great Comet of 1680 might end all life on Earth in the not very distant future. He even described the mechanics of how that might happen. In Newton, Professor Rob Iliffe, Director of the online Newton Project, reports on a disturbing conversation Newton had with a young relative in 1727, the year before his death:

“In an extraordinary conversation with John Conduitt [Newton’s half-nephew-in-law] at the end of his life, Newton told him that light and other material emitted by the Sun had coalesced into a moon and then a planet by attracting other matter. Finally it had become a comet, which in time would fall back into the sun to replenish it. He added that this comet might well be the same as the Great Comet of 1680, which would crash into the sun in the not too distant future. [Modern astronomers have determined that the Great Comet came as close as one-sixteenth of the sun’s diameter to the sun.] When it did so it would dramatically increase the sun’s heat to such an extent that ‘this earth would be burnt & no animals in this earth could live,’ an event that seemed to explain the supernovas seen in 1572 and 1604. All this might be superintended by superior ‘intelligent beings’ under God’s direction. Newton went on to say that human existence on the planet was limited and he implied that divine power might ‘repeople’ the planet. After this, Conduitt pointed to a passage in the Principia where Newton referred to stars being replenished by comets and asked Newton why he did not make clear the implications for the future of our own solar system. Since the topic of the end of the world was evidently amusing, Newton remarked in a rare moment of levity that it ‘concerned us more, and laughing added he had said enough for people to know his meaning.’ ”

Newton had said something of the same to Scottish mathematician David Gregory in 1694, when he suggested that the satellites of Jupiter “were proto-Earths that were held in reserve by God to repopulate the solar system after the cometary cataclysm.”

Newton’s physical description of how the world will end sounds uncannily like the Biblical Apocalypse. To see the sun grow bigger and bigger and redder and redder in the sky, to watch everything around us burst into flame and turn black—this would be to take part in a spectacle worthy of certain passages in the Book of Revelation. Moreover, Newton did not believe that our planet would vanish, but that there would be a Succession of Worlds and a New Earth. His speculation that superior “intelligent beings” might guide us (or the “144,000”?), under God’s direction, to a new proto-earth, is uncomfortably consistent with the physical description of the “end of the world” that he gave Conduitt.

Modern astronomers have decided that the orbital period of Kirch’s Comet is actually 9,356 years—a figure that absolves it from the crimes and blessings with which Halley, Newton, and Whiston have burdened it. In 2012, a new comet, ISON, was discovered, one whose orbital elements match so amazingly closely to those of the Comet of 1680 that astronomers wonder if the two comets may once have been one comet. ISON is expected to pass extremely close to the sun in December 2013—so close that its burning brightness might make it visible in broad daylight on the day before Christmas. Let’s hope that it doesn’t suffer the catastrophic fate (catastrophic for us as well) that the proto-Velikovskian Isaac Newton feared the Comet of 1680 might suffer on its next fly-by of the sun. If so, the ancient Mayans and their analogues around the world will be proven right regarding their predictions of the end of the world, or almost right—they will have been off by one year.

By John Chambers