I’ve been reading David R. Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (Norton, 2012), which, despite its creationist-baiting title, is actually a science book about the development of geology as a science. I concur with many other critics that this is a lively and engaging volume that dispenses scientific history along with a good dose of discussion about the changing way the Bible’s absolute truths have been continuously reworked over the years. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
Montgomery mentions that Edmond Halley, the astronomer best remembered for his study of the periodicity of the comet that bears his name, summarizing two papers Halley read before the Royal Society in 1694 (Montgomery incorrectly gives the date as 1684 on first reference in my eBook edition, but later corrects the date) in which Halley proposed that a comet struck the earth, ending antediluvian civilization and causing Noah’s Flood. In the second paper, Halley speculated that comets my repeatedly strike the earth, causing any number of disasters. Two years later, the same theory appeared in William Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth.
Montgomery uses this material to discuss catastrophism as a contrast to modern uniformitarianism in geology, but to those who know their alternative science crazes, Halley’s idea immediate calls to mind the Worlds in Collision (1950) of Immanuel Velikovsky, which similarly postulated that the effects of collisions or near-collisions with massive comets (which he thought later became the planets of the solar system) caused Biblical events like the Flood. Velikovsky, in fact, cited Whiston as a source.
Interested, I wanted to read Halley’s papers, the oldest comet-impact theory know, but this turned out to be a challenge. Halley read the papers in December 1694 but worried that the ecclesiastical authorities would accuse him of blasphemy, so he asked that they not be published. They remained unpublished until 1723 when they appeared in the Society’s journal and were reprinted in a collected volume in 1734. Brief excerpts appeared in John Hutchinson's Sine Principio. In 1809, the papers were abstracted but not reprinted, and in 1872 significant extracts appeared in a mechanical journal during a renewed “Noah’s Comet” debate, but otherwise the papers haven’t been reprinted since 1723 so far as I could determine, excepting a 1960s reprint of the whole run of the journal. Google Books indexed (in both editions) the original papers, but no copy is available as searchable online text, so I’ve gone through and proofed a copy and placed it in my Library. You can read it here.
It continues to amaze me that modern alternative ideas have such long and fascinating pedigrees, often the result of uncritical advocacy of discarded ideas that once served as science before the facts disproved them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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