Science, Space

A Comet Brought About The Biblical Flood

"The Meteor of 1860," by Frederick Edwin Church.
“The Meteor of 1860,” by Frederick Edwin Church.

This New Year’s Eve, the skies were lit up not just with fireworks and LED-lit topiary, but also a celestial object: comet 45P.

In “The Meteor of 1860,” Frederick Edwin Church painted what he saw in nature, a string of fireballs streaking across the sky above the Catskills. It depicts a rare cosmic event, known as a “meteor procession”—when a meteor grazes the Earth’s atmosphere and breaks into smaller fragments, all traveling in the same path—which took place on July 20, 1860.

Everyone who saw the eerie spectacle thought it portended doom. (It didn’t, though.)

But that same event got the mathematician William Whiston—a close colleague and 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 had unleashed the great Biblical flood.

This comet, he declared, had passed so close to Earth that it’d exerted a gravitational pull strong enough to roil the oceans and drench the world. Basing his calculations on the work done 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.



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