Comets Foretell Doom?   Historical Record

There might be a chance that the appearance of a comet really does sometimes foretell a worldwide disaster!   The ancients may have been right about that!

The History

Throughout recorded history, it is really consistent. every reference to a comet always inspired fear in the people, and afterwards, some sort of major human tragedy was always described as being a result of the comet's visit.

Practically, this seems pretty silly!   And, since mankind manages to have wars every ten or twenty years anyway, trying to claim an association between a comet and a later war was always pretty easy.   Science has always had an easy time of dismissing these claims as irrational.

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If we dismiss wars and other man-caused problems, there still seem to be a surprising number of plagues, famines, and other major natural disasters that have seemed to occur within a few years after some appearances of comets.

Realistically, the great probability is that these just happen to be coincidences.   But there have been quite a few of these coincidences!

Ancient Chinese records list a number of comet/plague incidents. The Black Death of the 1300s is sometimes associated with the appearance of a great comet.   Several major outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague have been associated with the appearance of great comets.

Is this all just a coincidence?   It probably is!   However, let's speculate for a moment!


In recent years, astrophysicists have discovered numerous hydrocarbon molecules in distant empty space.   This includes some amino acids and other complex organic molecules.   If this is true in distant space, it might also be true in nearby space, within our Solar System.

Recent research on comets has established that they contain quite an assortment of tiny particles.   The spacecraft sent to investigate some recent comet passages has confirmed this.

As a comet approaches the Sun from deep space, the heat from the Sun begins to "boil off" some volatile materials in the comet's ball body.   As this material is expelled, the Solar Wind blows it outward, away from the Sun, which forms the tail of the comet.   In other words, the tail of the comet is actually made of countless tiny particles that had been expelled from the comet's main body.

Let's speculate that the assortment of materials in the particles of that tail includes some hydrocarbon molecules and amino acids and other complex organic molecules.   This has not been established by experiment but it is quite plausible.

Sometimes, after a comet has already gone by, the Earth passes through the tail area.   This happened, for example, when Halley's Comet passed in 1910.   The main noticed effect was spectacular meteor showers, as many millions of the larger particles of the cometary tail impacted our atmosphere at 50,000 mph or higher, and burned up in momentary flashes of light (that's what meteors are!).  

Much smaller particles must also have been present.   These objects are so small that they have extremely small momentum.   As they first contacted the upper layers of our atmosphere, they would rapidly slow down.   This means they would not burn up in the atmosphere but slowly float down through the atmosphere to the Earth's surface.

This sounds pretty weird, but science believes that every single day, around 1,000 tons of microscopic meteors float down in this way, even without a comet being around!   When the Earth passes through a comet's tail, this amount would certainly be greatly increased.

We now need to consider a different topic, that of resistance to disease.   When the European explorers first visited the New World, they unknowingly brought several diseases with them.   Europeans had long been exposed to these diseases, and had generally developed resistance to them.   Whenever a European came down with one of those diseases, the symptoms were generally mild.

The peoples of the New World had never been exposed to those diseases.   When they were exposed to them through the European explorers, the results were catastrophic.   The vast majority of people living in Central and South America soon died of these (mysterious) diseases.

One group had been previously exposed and had developed substantial immunity.   The other group had never had the chance to develop any immunity and was decimated.

OK. Back to the comets, and our speculation.   What if a few particles of that comet's tail included some organic molecules that represented some virus or some molecule that could somehow modify existing Earth bacteria or viruses into more virulent forms?   The peoples of the Earth would not have any immunity to such a disease and infection.   It might spread very rapidly and kill consistently.

In the case of the Halley's Comet passage of 1910, several years later, millions of people died of a virulent Influenza Epidemic.   There probably is no connection between the two, but it's an interesting coincidence.   What if a comet actually did appear just before the Black Death and the various Bubonic Plague outbreaks, and what if the Earth passed through the tails of those comets?   Could that have been the initiator of those plagues that killed millions of people?

Extending our speculation, could such a comet passage in unrecorded pre-history, have been responsible with initiating such a plague among dinosaurs just before the K-T Boundary Event, and thus be the actual cause of the extinction of dinosaurs?   Or be the cause of numerous other extinctions that we know have occurred?   Hmmmm!

I have tried to emphasize that much of this argument is based on speculation.   Where my other scientific pages are (hopefully) closely based on solid scientific facts, this page is different.   It is meant more as a seed for thought rather than as a basis for building on.

As far as I know, no one else has ever postulated specific causes for the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague and others.   It is well established that each spread rapidly due to horrible sanitation practices that were present at the time, but the initial cause has not been addressed.   In addition, the several main theories that attempt to explain mass extinctions seem to have doubtful logic in them.   This possibility is certainly no worse than they are!

Another essay of mine, with a much more logical reasoning regarding the K-T mass extinction and related subjects is at: Mass Extinction, a New Explanation, Evolutionary Bursts, and More!

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in March 2002.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago