One of the greatest enduring mysteries is that nobody knows how to spell Halley’s comet. Is it Halley, Hailey, Haley, Hayley, or perhaps Hawley?

I’m serious, it’s like the GIF vs JIF of comets; being named after its discoverer, Edmond Halley (or Hailey, Haley, etc…), who frequently misspelled his own surname. Seriously, even the internet’s inability to spell the word “pregnant” is nothing compared to the variations of Halley (I will be using this version henceforth). I can only imagine the nightmare of being his descendant.

Conundrum aside, Halley was a genius. For example, when asked to work out the acreage of land in every English county back in the 17th century, Halley took a large map of England and cut out the largest complete circle he could. That circle scaled to 111.57km in the real world. He then weighed both this circle and the complete map, deriving that since the map weighed 4 times more than the circle, the area of England was 4 times the area of the circle. With no precise instruments in his time except for his polymathic intuition, his final calculation was only 1 percent off from the contemporary calculations.

I would be lucky to guess my own height to one percent accuracy, and this man calculated the entire area of England! This is but one of Halley’s lesser-known feats. He is most renowned for his prediction of a repeating comet, now named after him. In 1682, he observed a comet that seemed to have a very similar orbit to comets reported in 1607 and 1531. 14 years later, Halley hadn’t forgotten, writing to Newton, “I am more and more confirmed that we have seen that comet now three times since ye year 1531”. He noticed the periodic gap of ~75 years, and predicted it would return in 1758. It did, though Halley himself was not alive to see his prediction come true.

228 years later, science has evolved to a point where even third-graders understand principles of the solar system (such as the Earth orbiting the Sun) that took astronomers like Galileo lifetimes to discover. We are now able to send spacecrafts up close to the comet, studying it. Think about that; we went from hypothesizing about its recurrence to blasting rockets to study it in 3 lifetimes, or 3 Halley recurrences!

In fact, history becomes so much more interesting when we use the metric of Halleys instead of years. During the last Halley, Americans were bringing home personal computers for the first time. One Halley earlier, soldiers throughout the world were engrossed in a massive worldwide conflict (WW1). One Halley before that, Charles Darwin was aboard the HMS Beagle. The Halley before that, USA wasn’t even a country. And 30 Halleys before that, the earliest historical sightings of the comet were made in ancient Greek, China, and Babylon.

In other words, in 2022, we are five human lifetimes past the building of the Taj Mahal, and two lifetimes past the abolishment of slavery in the United States. History, like life, is so incredibly fast and yet so agonizingly slow. It’ll be 42 years until the next projected Halley appearance — in 2064. Who knows what will happen before then? Will climate change projections come true and Earth be left to rot while we live in a colony on Mars? Or perhaps we will have made so many scientific breakthroughs our home will be practically unrecognizable? More so, what will you and I be doing then? Will I still remember writing this article, my friends, my life, my fondness for this comet I’ve yet to witness? The uncertainty of the future terrifies me, just as it terrified those before me, from Isaac Newton to Aristotle to Confucius. Perhaps that is why it’s so comforting that we do know when Halley will eventually return, and that it will return, regardless of we are still here to see it. All we can do now is live a life worth remembering. Oh, and we can also remember our surnames, especially if you’re going to find a comet.

Photo: Erik Schereder on