Comets have fascinated people for millions of years, but until 1994 no one had
ever had the chance to witness firsthand the destructive power of these
wanderers. From July 16 to 22, fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into
Jupiter, creating a series of fireballs in the giant planet's atmosphere. The
string of explosions was awesome, yet the discovery that comets can wreak havoc
would not have come as a surprise to our distant ancestors. People of widely
different cultures have long regarded comets with fear and dread. The
unheralded, unpredictable appearances of these ephemeral celestial visitors were
believed to be omens of disaster for rulers, realms, and entire populations.
Comets, it was thought, signaled or caused wars, revolutions, plagues, and other
calamities. Haley’s Comet made an appearance in 1066. Modern scientists may
not believe in omens, but they have come to realize that comets, which are only
mountain-sized bodies, are capable of causing worldwide disasters as terrible as
any that were imagined of old—and paradoxically might also be responsible for
our very existence.