Following the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, Alan Hale, co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp, released a statement at a press conference in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. He began by reading from Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World…
Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves.
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.
Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purposes, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers.
The demons begin to stir.
Two years ago, said Hale, what was apparently a group of Christian extremists bombed a building in Oklahoma City. Around 168 people, including innocent children, were killed. A victory for ignorance and superstition.
Prior to an item featuring Alan Hale and Tom Bopp on American television, a piece ran on a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv.
“An Islamic extremist went into a restaurant with some dynamite strapped to himself, and detonated it. I watched the various images of the bloodied and bleeding bodies, and one image which really struck me was that of a screaming young baby, who now will have to live with the experience of growing up without her mother, who was killed in the blast. Another victory for ignorance and superstition.”
Then, in California, 39 individuals committed a mass suicide, apparently so their “inner beings” could rendezvous with another group of “beings” on an alien spacecraft traveling alongside Comet Hale-Bopp.
“Score another victory for ignorance and superstition. Ignorance and superstition have been with us all along; the bloodbaths that have occurred throughout human history offer ample testimony to that. A lot of this ignorance and superstition has been focused upon these celestial objects we call comets’. If we put ourselves into the shoes of those who lived 500 years ago, it isn’t all that difficult to understand why.
“People then were familiar with the stars, and planets. But every once in a while a comet would appear from nowhere, hang around for a couple of weeks, and then disappear back into nowhere.
“It was all too easy to connect these objects in the sky with whatever bad events were occurring here on Earth, and as a result the comets acquired a reputation as being harbingers of doom and portents of disaster.
“Folks, this isn’t 500 years ago; we’ve learned quite a bit about these objects in the years that have elapsed since then.”
Back at the turn of the 18th century, Edmond Halley showed that comets are members of the solar system, and are subject to the same laws of physics that everything else in the universe is subject to. Earlier this century Fred Whipple hypothesized that comets could be described as “dirty snowballs”, and all the scientific evidence we’ve gathered since then supports this.
“That’s all a comet is: a dirty snowball. They are no more portents of doom than are the snowballs that my sons and I throw at each other after the snowstorms we get here in Cloudcroft.”
Ignorance and superstition still exist in today’s modern world — Hale heard the comet was an angel from God and was a sign of the end times, a fulfillment of various prophecies.
“Some of this ignorance and superstition has mutated into a newer form. Almost from day one I have heard claims that Hale-Bopp is an alien mothership’ or is under intelligent control’ or some such. And then, of course, there is this business of the mysterious Saturn-shaped companion’ following Hale-Bopp that broke last November. According to the claims, this was an alien spacecraft, four times larger than Earth’, coming to do one of various things to us.”
Hale determined the object was a bright background star the comet happened to be located next to and posted this explanation, with photographs, on the World Wide Web.
“But ignorance and superstition didn’t want to hear this. I was called a traitor to Earth’ for withholding information’.”
People are still adamant there is a companion following Hale-Bopp.
“And now, this has been carried to an extreme; 39 people have now lost their lives as a result of this ignorance and superstition.
“It’s been about 30 years now, since Bob Dylan asked How many deaths will it take til we know that too many people have died?’ How many more Oklahoma Cities will we have to endure? How many more Tel Avivs? How many more Rancho Santa Fes are we going to have before we finally say Enough!’ to ignorance and superstition? How many more of these types of reports are we going to have to listen to before we finally decide that we are going to use the candle of science, and the reasoning skills that we have, to take back the darkness from the ignorance and superstition that is enveloping us?”
Hale urged readers to ignore irresponsible reports and enjoy the beauty of the comet for its own sake — “drop what you’re doing, forget about the world for a minute, go outside, look up in the northwest, and take a look at this comet. It’s a beautiful object. It’s lovely. It’s one of the most magnificent celestial objects you will ever see.
“But for all its beauty, its magnificence, its splendor, all it is is a dirty snowball that’s orbiting the Sun. Nothing more. It has no influence on Earthly events. It has no power to affect anything that happens here on Earth. It has no power, but we do. We have the power to build a world for the Third Millennium that is free of the ignorance and superstition that is so rampant in our society today. We have that power.”