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Book Review : A Little Cometary on Halley Showman

November 15, 1985|DAVID BRIN | Astronomer David Brin's latest novels include "The Postman" and, with Gregory Benford, "Heart of the Comet," to be published in February 1986. and

Comet Halley: Once in a Lifetime by Mark Littmann and Donald K. Yeomans (American Chemical Society: No price given, paperback, 175 pp., illustrated)

The Return of Halley's Comet by Patrick Moore and John Mason (Warner Books: $6.95 paperback; 121 pp., illustrated)

The Mystery of Comets by Fred L. Whipple (Smithsonian: $24.95 hardcover, $12.50 paperback; 264 pp., illustrated)

Asimov's Guide to Halley's Comet by Isaac Asimov (Dell: $5.95 paperback; 118 pp., illustrated)

The Arrival of Halley's Comet: 1985/86 by Paul B. Doherty (Barrons: $8.95 large format paperback; 32 pp., illustrated)

Comet Fever by Donald Gropman (Fireside: $7.95 paperback; 189 pp., illustrated)

Halley's Comet Finder by Ben Mayer (Perigee Books: $5.95)

Observer's Guide to Halley's Comet by James Muirden (Arco: $3.95)

The Official Halley's Comet Book by Brian Harpur (Hodder & Stoughton: $15.95)

A Viewer's Guide to Halley's Comet by Matthew Hart (Pocket: $2.95)

Every year astronomers note dozens of comets, icy visitors that descend from deep space to glow briefly under the sun's fierce warmth. Few brighten enough for the public to become aware of them, but when one does, you can be sure it will get attention.

Comet Halley is the most flamboyant of the so-called short-period comets. It returns every 76 years or so--an interval about equal to a human span. For most of us, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Enter the inevitable shower of topical books. These range from very good, to entertaining, to very bad--all offered in honor (or exploitation) of Mr. Halley's hairy star.

The rush into print isn't surprising. Summertime is short for a comet, a few weeks or months out of an orbit lasting tens to thousands of years. Briefly, during its closest approach to the sun, the ancient, gritty snowball at the comet's heart grows fogged by a fuzzy halo of particles and expelled gases, sometimes joined by gossamer ion and dust tails millions of miles long.

Showmen of the Cosmos

Comets are fascinating as probable remnants of the origin of the solar system. They are also quite beautiful. Unfortunately, this generation hasn't witnessed these showmen of the cosmos at their best. Most of the comets discovered since 1910 have been poor spectacles.

Many recall the debacle of Comet Kohoutek, which was promised as the "comet of the century" but then seemed to fizzle: a scientific treasure but a public flop.

Not to fear. Unfavorable planetary positions notwithstanding, we can still expect a pretty good performance from Edmund Halley's comet.

America opted not to send its own space probe to rendezvous with the Old Faithful of comets, but U.S. scientists will support European, Japanese and Soviet robot missions. Space shuttle cameras will click. Features will be carried by local newspapers and the 11 o'clock news.

It'll be a good excuse for a party.

Topping the list of comet books are titles written or co-authored by reputable astronomers. A good example is "Comet Halley: Once in a Lifetime," by Mark Littmann and Donald K. Yeomans, a thoroughly enjoyable piece of popular science writing. While sometimes a bit disorganized, the book nevertheless delivers a strong sense of what comets are about, and what they have meant to people in the past.

"The Return of Halley's Comet," by veteran science writer Patrick Moore and John Mason, also surveys the full range of topics, including how to take advantage of the December and April viewing opportunities. Small, dense print may trouble some readers, but Moore and Mason combine detail well with brevity.

Deepest Interest

Those with the deepest interest will want "The Mystery of Comets," by Fred L. Whipple, the renowned "father" of modern cometary astronomy. This is a thorough and satisfying exploration, ideal for those who want more science in their popular science. An excellent text for a non-technical course on comets and meteors.

There are several books whose sole aim is to help one go look at the thing. The "Halley's Comet Finder," by Ben Mayer is one of the most helpful and entertaining. It would be well supplemented by James Muirden's "Observer's Guide to Halley's Comet," featuring instructions and charts more detailed than will be found in most newspapers. Neither book contains much information about comets themselves, their history or science.

For those whose interest is limited, or for younger readers, there is lighter fare.

"Asimov's Guide to Halley's Comet" is brief, with large print and clear illustrations. Still, it obviously took the good doctor less time to write than you will need to read it. There are factual errors that might have been caught in a second draft. Suitable for bright teen-agers or those looking for an hour's light diversion.

Better, more informative, and even easier to read is "The Arrival of Halley's Comet," by Paul B. Doherty, a slim, large format book containing all of the essentials with a minimum of talk or misdirection. A special case is "Comet Fever," by Donald Gropman. Its introductory chapters do discuss comets, briefly, but mostly it is devoted to reciting the crazy things a few people did when Comet Halley last appeared, in 1910. Some of the anecdotes are humorous, others sad. Much is clearly apocryphal or sensationalized. Still, it is an entertaining, light read.

Gossipy, Fluffy Volume

About some exploitation books nothing good can be said. Brian Harpur's "The Official Halley's Comet Book" is pretty, but the volume is gossipy, fluffy, and contains next to nothing correct about comets. Even worse, Matthew Hart's "A Viewer's Guide to Halley's Comet" is filled with bad, misleading science.

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