Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,
Long ago, at exactly this time in March, Bennett’s Comet swung by the Southern Hemisphere, discovered by an amateur astronomer. I was deeply interested in the stars myself and would spend evenings scanning the skies with binoculars and copy of The Southern Stars by Patrick Moore. It was a huge thrill to find some blurs near the horizon that were probably the Magellanic Clouds, companion dwarf galaxies to our Milky Way. Wanting more magnification, I saw an advertisement in Scientific American for a book called Amateur Telescope Making and my dad allowed me to order it. It was a small book covered in grey paper, even today on my bookshelf. The local planetarium sold supplies, and following directions, I ground my own lenses by rotating two six-inch discs of glass against one another, so one became concave (the lens) and one convex. Next steps involved polishing the lens with increasingly fine emery paper and rouge, and then coating it with silver (from reduced silver nitrate) to make a mirror. The culmination was mounting the lens in a cardboard tube and attaching an eye piece. It didn’t matter that the lens was not successful, and nothing was in focus, the thrill of having made my own telescope was enough.
Bennett’s Comet was very bright for a couple of weeks before dawn, around 4am, in the west. The comet was not popularly viewed because people were asleep, but I was determined not to miss it. My friend Janine had slept over and the alarm clock dragged us out of bed. It was a chilly Johannesburg night, and we were freezing outside in our pajamas and barefoot. But as promised, there hanging in the sky was the comet, a long tail spreading from the head (the ‘coma’). I remember everything was very still and quiet. Except it seemed like the comet was loud, proclaiming its place. You could not have missed it. By many accounts, Bennett’s is one of the most beautiful comets to have visited. Even Janine was impressed. I can readily conjure a little movie from my mind of standing in the middle of the road in the sharp pre-dawn air, looking west and being jolted to see the comet, so bright and stunning. It really was a once in a lifetime experience, as Bennett’s Comet has an orbital period of about 1700 years.
March is the end of summer in South Africa, and the end of winter here. The temperatures are about the same. It’s a season switch you can rely on, year after year, and a night sky you can count on, even on Bennett’s Comet coming back someday. The reliability of the stars, sparkling there, seems to me a bit of comfort in our complex lives and in this turbulent time.
Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science