The story seems all too boring and predictable: the son of a wealthy London businessman drops out of school, sets sail for a southern island, and lolls around for years while his father continues to lavish money on his frivolous pursuits. What is the usual end of a story with such a beginning? We know all too well, and we put down the book -or, in this day, change the channel- seeking to avoid the repetitious unravelling of an all too familiar tale. But wait. In this case you would be wrong not to proceed. This story is not any story, for the boy in question is not just any boy. Indeed, the boy referred to here is Edmund Halley, and his achievements are to be found in the skies, and on the earth.
If you were asked who designed and tested the first diving suits and bells, tabulated the first actuarial tables, plotted the first magnetic maps of the Atlantic Ocean, and determined the total acreage in the British Isles, you would think that you would be dealing with the work of a number of different people. But you would be wrong. They are all the accomplishments of the active mind of Edmund Halley. It is true that he dropped out of school, but the school was Oxford University, and he "dropped out" to take the scientific instruments bought for him by his father to the far off South Atlantic island of St. Helena (where Napoleon met exile and death over a century later), there to make the first star charts of the southern constellations. So significant and so accurate was his work there that his monarch, King Charles II of England, ordered a reluctant Oxford to grant Halley a Master's Degree in science without any further demonstration of academic worthiness. (Oxford did as ordered, but always felt that it was an unforgivable breech of college etiquette that Halley left their tutelage without so much as a by-your-leave.)
The remarkable Mr. Halley went on to fame as the man who gave us Halley's Comet, but, in reality, that comet had been sighted for about 2000 years before Halley came to understand it. What Halley did do, and what had never been done before, was to show conclusively that comets were members of the solar system, and that, like the planets, they too orbited the sun in predictable orbital paths. Up to that time, comets had been thought to be a variety of things, all of them wrong, ranging from fiery vapors exuding from the earth (Aristotle), to the sins of man burning in flame as they rise to heaven (a Lutheran minister), to portents of evil sent by an angry God(s). Halley put all this behind us by calculating the orbit of the comet which came to bear his name in honor, and by predicting, successfully, its return in the year 1758. Now Halley did not live to see that event, as he knew he would not. But he did say that if his prediction should turn out to be true that "candid posterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman". (And this we gladly do, although we like to think that we have advanced beyond the need for the chauvinism which he seems to have felt in his time.)
Of course, Halley, for all his estimable triumphs, never did understand what the comets are, or where they come from. This was the work which waited for the astronomers who followed in his footsteps. In a nutshell, here it is for the comet called Halley:
• size of nucleus • about 4 miles (the size of a small town)
• closest to Sun • 54 million miles (closer than Venus)
• farthest from Sun • 3-1/2 billion miles (farther than Neptune)
• closest to Earth (ever) • 837 AD: 3 million miles
• next appearance • June to August 2061
If you think Halley would have enjoyed knowing what you now know, you are right. But don't feel sorry for him (if you are inclined to). He accomplished much in his lifetime . . . enough for many men, and women. And he probably died happy. We are told that during his 86th year, in 1742, one evening, he asked his daughter for a glass of wine, drank it, and slipped away silently. Requiescat en Pace, Edmund Halley. We lift a glass to you.