Cover image for Great comets
Great comets
Burnham, Robert, 1947-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
ix, 228 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QB721 .B79 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Spectacular and mysterious objects that come and go in the night sky, comets have dwelt in our popular culture for untold ages. As remnants from the formation of the Solar System, they are objects of key scientific research and space missions. As one of nature's most potent and dramatic dangers, they pose a threat to our safety - and yet they were the origin of our oceans and perhaps even life itself. This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of the biggest and most awe-inspiring of all comets: those that have earned the title 'Great'. It focuses on Great Comets Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in 1997, which gripped attention world-wide because, for many, they were the first comets ever seen. For everyone interested in astronomy, this exciting book reveals the secrets of the Great Comets and provides essential tools for keeping up-to-date with comet discoveries in the future.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

If it isn't already "the most famous photograph ever taken by [the] Hubble" Space Telescope--as Wilkie and Rosselli suggest--the Hubble's portrait of pillars of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, with new stars coming to life some 7,000 years ago, will surely be the most familiar Hubble photo once this season's remarkable astronomy books reach the shelves. The image graces the front dust jackets of Other Worlds and Visions of Heaven, is inset on the back dust jacket of Magnificent Universe, and is featured and discussed in those books and in Unfolding Our Universe. Former Astronomy magazine editor Burnham's focus is too narrow to include that Hubble picture. But Great Comets, too, is lavishly illustrated, with images of great comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, taken by both amateur and professional astrophotographers during the comets' 1996 and 1997 flybys. Burnham celebrates the great comets and describes new knowledge their study has provided about the composition of the universe. He discusses the Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp passages in detail and considers past and planned scientific missions to study comets, as well as the cultural impact of comets through the ages. We are now, Burnham suggests, "in the curious position of discarding a former superstition while keeping a wary eye on Earth's neighborhood." Burnham's final chapter provides print and Web resources on comets. Nicolson's Unfolding Our Universe is the most academic of these featured books: although it includes plenty of fascinating deep-space photographs, it also offers dozens of diagrams and charts that clarify astronomical basics. Nicolson's explanations are sometimes a bit dry, but beginning astronomy buffs will relish his discussions of, for example, how various types of telescopes work and the physics of star formation. Three brief appendixes summarize useful information on measurement, the solar system, and the brightest and nearest stars. The Hubble Space Telescope is, in a sense, the center of Wilkie and Rosselli's Visions of Heaven: their narrative includes the story of how Hubble was lifted into space and how its inadequately focused instruments were mended. When images from other sources are included, the authors' major intent is to demonstrate how Hubble has improved scientists' understanding of what's going on "out there." In other respects, this British volume by a physicist and a journalist adopts the same objective as Croswell and Trefil: to use these astonishing pictures to illustrate current scientific knowledge about planets, nebulae, and galaxies, and about distant places and distant times. Lack of an index is their volume's one weakness. The big dogs in the battle for astronomy shelf space (and, no doubt, coffee-table space) are Croswell and Trefil, award-winning science writers known for enabling nonspecialists to grasp complex subjects. Trefil, a George Mason University physics professor, opens Other Worlds with a helpful analogy: he visualizes the universe as a huge matryoshka doll, with our entire solar system in the two smallest dolls and five more layers of "dolls" beyond the known universe. This concentric image serves Trefil well as he examines the birth of the solar system and then its inner and outer planets. He closes with a discussion of the universe beyond our solar system--"The Great Beyond." Croswell, author of Planet Quest (1997), also moves outward from our solar system to stars, galaxies, and the universe itself, but well over half the book focuses on stars and galaxies. Thus, readers will find thorough explanations of star spots and star clusters, the event horizon, and galactic empires. Like Trefil, he includes images from a number of sources; like Trefil, Wilkie and Rosselli, and Nicolson, Croswell closes with a thoughtful discussion of the cosmological questions the study of astronomy inevitably raises. A glossary and suggested further reading are appended, along with five tables of data on our neighboring planets, moons, stars, and local group galaxies. --Mary Carroll

Choice Review

Burnham's exceptionally attractive book features wonderful color photographs of the so-called "great comets"--comets that were easily seen by the general public. Immersed in the descriptions of individual comets is the important science that resulted from their passages. Few books include the personal stories of the amateur astronomers who discover many comets through long hours of searching the sky. The reader is left with admiration for those who can do such detailed work with so little hope of success. A cursory history of comets, including how various cultures throughout history have regarded them, and a look-ahead to future space missions add to the book's general appeal. An examination of the danger from a potential future comet collision with Earth concludes the book. A useful set of additional references (in print and on the Internet) is arranged according to topic. Although the narrative is clear and easy to read, it is the photographs and illustrations that make Great Comets unique. Recommended for general readers. M.-K. Hemenway; University of Texas at Austin

Table of Contents

1 Great comets and astronomy
2 What makes a comet æGreatÆ?
3 Great Comet Hyakutake (1996)
4 Great Comet Hale-Bopp (1997)
5 Space missions to comets
6 Comets and cultures
7 Danger from the sky
8 Staying current with comets