Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 14: Edmund Halley Dies (1742)

It was on this date in 1742 that English astronomer Edmund Halley, best known for predicting the return of the comet that now bears his name, died at age 85.

Born on November 8, 1656, Halley had an interest in mathematics and astronomy at an early age and published his first scientific papers while still an undergraduate student. Appointed assistant to the Astronomer Royal at the Greenwich Observatory in 1675, Halley traveled to the St. Helena and was so instrumental in mapping the Southern sky that he became known as 'the Southern Tycho' in tribute to the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose work marked the pinnacle of pre-telescopic astronomy. However, it is for a comet that Halley would be remembered.

Looking through astronomical records, Halley noticed that there seemed to be a pattern to sightings of a Great Comet, namely that one was seen every 76 years. Using the past to predict the future, Halley theorized that these several comets were, in fact, a single comet returning every 76 years. Halley then boldly predicted that a great comet would be seen again in 1758. Unfortunately, Halley died 2 years before he was vindicated.   

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