BMJ 11 September 1999: Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:717
Those were the days: the Apollo missions, fuzzy pictures from the moon, Also Sprach Zarathustra, James Burke, and Patrick Moore jumping up and down with an ingenuous and guileless excitement that was irresistibly infectious. It seemed that a new age was dawning and the uncluttered truths of science would provide all the answers.
But the blissful unimpeached Arcady was not to last, and because of this the word “comet” to me has never suggested a magnificent ball of fire hurtling across the solar system, with a shimmering silver tail a million miles long. Rather it implies shattered dreams and busted expectations, because I remember all too clearly the bitter disappointment of Comet Kohoutek in the 1970s (and also, a sheer coincidence, that no girls would go out with me).
“It’ll be half the size of the moon,” enthused Patrick Moore, who had never lied to me before, and whom I—still just a kid with stars in my eyes—really believed. But my faith in him and my boyhood dreams were to be utterly betrayed, for when Comet Kohoutek eventually arrived it was as ineffectual as a cough bottle from the British National Formulary.
And the busted expectations continued: John F Kennedy, antibiotics, interferon, Ben Johnson; morning glories with feet of clay.
So I had no hopes for Comet Hale-Bopp whatsoever, despite all the advance publicity. I’d heard that song before, and it had broken my youthful heart, so I didn’t even bother looking up in the sky for it. Until one night, I was lamenting my disenchantment over a few beers with my good friend Petie.
“You mean you haven’t seen it yet?” he said in surprise. “It’s been up there for two months now.”
“Well, where is it then?” I said, wondering when exactly he had become such an astronomical expert, if he was as busy looking after his cows as he said he was.
“It’s right over my house,” he said emphatically.
Very droll for a hillbilly, I thought, but the very next night I was travelling over the mountains and I stopped the car to look, and… there it was, shining like a beacon in the sky, tail streaming out like a little piece of heaven, Comet Hale-Bopp in a rainbow of glory, and, as promised, right above Petie’s house.
Dreams do come true, Dorothy, and sometimes right in our own backyard.