Comets: Creators and Destroyers
David H. Levy
Simon & Schuster, $12
Review by L.D. Meagher
Web posted on: Tuesday, May 12, 1998 1:15:39 PM EDT
They are the questions that have engaged a thousand generations of philosophers. How did life begin? How did humans come to be the dominant intelligence on Earth? How will it all end?
For David H. Levy, all these questions have the same answer: comets. His book "Comets: Creators and Destroyers" is the story of the celestial apparitions that have tantalized and terrified people since the dawn of civilization. It examines the legends that have surrounded the appearance of comets, and explains some of the science that is helping us understand what these cosmic visitors really are.
Levy knows what he's talking about. He has discovered more than 20 comets, including Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in 1994. He has also participated in the effort to catalogue all the comets and asteroids that might some day collide with Earth.
His slim volume is packed with information. It spans more than four billion years, tracing the early formation of the solar system, and its entourage of comets. Levy breezes through the weightier matters, using vivid language and even flashes of humor to keep the narrative moving. As he discusses the theory that comets carried the first elements of what would become life to the newly formed Earth, he notes that they are not particularly well suited to the task. "If an express delivery company offered fifteen minute worldwide service by launching your parcel from the sender and then shooting it through your roof at forty miles per second, you would probably not use their service more than once."
Even so, Levy makes a plausible argument that comets crashing into the planet billions of years ago had a hand in the emergence of life on Earth. Another comet (or, less likely, an asteroid) 65 million years ago is thought to be responsible for the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and, incidentally, made it possible for mammals to become bigger, to become more intelligent, to become us.
He also paints a doomsday scenario. He explains what would happen if a comet like the one that made such a spectacular impression on Jupiter were to hit Earth instead. It's not the end of the world, but it's the end of the world we know. It's a harrowing account, steeped in the science of comet impacts. It would be interesting to compare it with the depiction of a similar catastrophe in the new movie "Deep Impact".
Levy may be at his best when he relates his personal experiences as a comet hunter. He has searched the skies from, among other places, the Palomar Observatory in California and his backyard in Arizona. His passion for the pursuit of a ghostly image in the sky suffuses the entire book. He writes, "I find that for a successful comet search, it helps to have the perseverance of an Arctic explorer, the heart of a poet, and the patience of Job."
He tells the tales of many comets. He explains why Kohoutek was so disappointing, to casual observers at any rate, and how that affected the public reaction to the more spectacular Comet West two years later. He examines the lore that grew up around the appearances of Comet Halley, and the human tragedy that accompanied Comet Hale-Bopp.
"Comets: Creators and Destroyers" is a highly readable introduction to the specters that blaze fleetingly across our skies.
L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.
© 1998 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this
service is provided to you.