CHAPTER 19 – Sky-Watching Discovery III: Halley’s Comet 1986
‘Hello there. This is Joe Bloggs of Radio ZZ. Can I speak to Michael Phillips? The guy with the telescope?’
And so started my first encounter with Halley’s Comet events.
The radio station wanted to host a BBQ and Champagne Breakfast Show at the Beach. All listeners were invited to attend a viewing of Halley’s Comet on March 15 at Awatoto Beach. They needed someone with a telescope and somehow my number came up. I advised them that the date they had chosen was not suitable. Halley’s Comet would be better seen later in the month and in early April, because scientists advised us all that that was when it would stretch across and dominate the sky. So, I told them to delay the viewing. No. It would have to be March. It was already advertised and Radio marketers wanted to be first with the viewing.
Kerry Coker, a science teacher at St John’s College, where I was teaching, had access to the school 3″ refractor. He would bring that along as well.
The night approached. And at 1.00am I loaded up the car with the 8″ telescope sticking up and out of the boot. And off I drove to Awatoto.
Strange? There seemed to be lots of traffic on the road at 1am in the morning. As I arrived at the beach I could see hundreds of cars trying to park on the shingle banks of the beach. Car headlights swung back and forth as they parked. Hundreds and hundreds of people milled around.
‘Hey! there’s the telescope!’ someone shouted.
I managed to find a spot in the banks of grassy shingle, set up the telescope, while hundreds of people lined up behind the scope. I tried to find Halley’s Comet in the ENE sky over the sea with the rifle finder-scope on the side of the telescope barrel. But the lights of the cars and the faintness of the comet made it difficult. Got it. But the lights of the cars in the corner of the eye made it hard to focus – the pupils of the eye need to adjust to the dark. The radio people arrived wanting to know about the delay. They could not or would not do anything about the car headlights. After all, we are having a party!
People were getting impatient. So, I swung the scope around to NNW. There was Saturn, a shining golden orb.
‘Quiet, please, everyone! We have a problem.’
The crowd hushed.
‘The car headlights are swamping Halley’s Comet. As you come up to the telescope, use your own binoculars and just your eyes alone I will point out the Comet for you. But if you want to see something really good, I will show you Saturn and its rings!’ swinging my telescope majestically round to view the planet.
The crowd were stunned. But they lined up and one by one saw Saturn and its rings.
I, meanwhile, observed the following:
‘You mean you can see Saturn. Tonight?’
‘Why is it here? Is it because of Halley’s Comet? Did Halley call it here tonight?’
‘It looks just like my bathroom curtains.’
‘Hey, got my camera.’ Takes out camera. Points to comet. Turns flash ON. Takes shot of the comet.
‘Just shine your torch, up there. See, there is the comet.’ Points torch in direction of comet. ‘Now, can you see it better, dear?’
Thank heavens, Kerry arrived with the 3″ scope and trained it on Halley.
I just had to try educating them somehow, so I started giving little astronomical lectures to the crowds, as they were waiting their turn to see Saturn and the comet. But hysteria was growing.
‘Look, over there!’ a woman screamed. ‘Some little red lights have appeared over the hills. They weren’t there an hour ago. What does it mean?’
I tried to explain that as the earth turns, new stars appear above the horizon, hour by hour.
The crowd was not to be put off such prosaic explanations. The party carried on. I could hear beer bottles breaking as they were thrown over the beach bank.
Then at 3.30am I noticed the orb of Jupiter rising over the sea in the ENE sky.
‘Kerry, turn your scope to Jupiter. We will form another queue.’
I turned and announced in my best magician-priest-scientist voice:
‘Behold, Jupiter arises in the East!’
This really set the crowd alight. Halley was dimming anyway so we now had two planets to view.
‘How is it possible that they are here, now, tonight?’
‘Is this the great sign that the world is ending?’
Thankfully, the crowd dissipated and it was time for some BBQ sausages and champagne.
‘Sorry,’ said the organisers. ‘The BBQ and the champagne is gone.’
So was my faith in 100 years of the modern science curriculum.
Later, in April, I managed a Halley’s Comet viewing on the St John’s College grounds. Invitations went out to the very few astronomers in the Bay to bring their scopes. Adverts were placed in the local newspaper. And wonderfully, that night the grounds were filled with the eager public. Lines stretched behind each of a half-dozen telescopes. Lessons on the sky were given. One quite old lady in a wheelchair arrived, was driven right up to my telescope. She was wheeled out, took one quick look at Halley’s Comet, and departed quickly, remarking: “I have now seen it twice in my lifetime.”