This New Year’s Eve, the skies were lit up not just with fireworks and LED-lit topiary trees, but also a celestial object: comet 45P.
Going back in time, late in the autumn of 1680, folks on the island of Manhattan saw an eerie spectacle that they thought portended doom. Remarkable for its spectacularly long tail, it was the Great Comet of 1680. (It didn’t do any harm, though.)
That same event got the mathematician William Whiston—a close colleague and a friend of Isaac Newton, credited as the “Carl Sagan of his day”—to come up with an explanation about the Deluge.
In “A New Theory of the Earth,” published in 1722, which became a bestseller of its day, he concluded that the comet that had been seen by those in the 17th century is what had unleashed the great Biblical flood.
It’d passed so close to Earth, he decalred, that it’d exerted a gravitational pull strong enough to roil the oceans and turn it into a watery chaos. Basing his calculations on the work done earlier by Edmund Halley—who suggested that the comet of 1680 swung by Earth every 575 years—he noted that it’d passed by Earth in 2342 B.C., which, at the time, was believed to be the date of the inundation.
The Book of Genesis tells us that on the 17th day of the second month of the 600th year of Noah’s life, “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up and the windows of heaven were opened.” And it began raining, a rain that went on for 40 days and 40 nights.
Like many of his peers, Whiston was also a theologian. So, while he believed that the comet had served its intended purpose of cleansing the world of sinners, god hadn’t flung it at Earth, but had created it in antiquity and set it on a path, guided by physics, to do its job.