Comet spotter Hale urges use of science and reasoning skills
April 1997

What follows is part of the statement Alan Hale gave March 28 in Cloudcroft, New Mexico at a press conference following the Heaven's Gate mass suicide.

I'd like to read an excerpt from the last book Carl Sagan wrote before he died, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." He quotes from a pamphlet entitled "A Candle in the Dark" written about 350 years ago: "... the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge" and then goes on to say: "Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purposes, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us--then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir."

...This week in Rancho Santa Fe, California, 39 individuals committed a mass suicide, apparently--from what information I've been able to gather so far--so that their "inner beings" could rendezvous with another group of "beings" on an alien spacecraft traveling alongside Comet Hale-Bopp. Score another victory for ignorance and superstition. Before I go any further, I'd like to offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of the 39 individuals who lost their lives in such a senseless and tragic manner.

Ignorance and superstition have been with us all along... A lot of this ignorance and superstition has been focused upon these celestial objects we call "comets." If we put ourselves into the shoes of those who lived 500 years ago, it isn't all that difficult to understand why. The people then were familiar with the stars, and with the motions of the planets. But every once in a while one of these comets, which can really be quite impressive in the sky, would appear from out of nowhere, hang around for a couple of weeks or so, and then essentially disappear back into nowhere. It was all too easy to connect these objects in the sky with whatever bad events were occurring here on Earth, and as a result the comets acquired a reputation as being harbingers of doom and portents of disaster.

Folks, this isn't 500 years ago; we've learned quite a bit about these objects in the years that have elapsed... Back at the turn of the 18th Century Edmond Halley showed that comets are members of the solar system, and are subject to the same laws of physics that everything else in the universe is subject to. Earlier this century Fred Whipple hypothesized that comets could be described as "dirty snowballs," and all the scientific evidence we've gathered since then supports this. That's all a comet is: a dirty snowball. They are no more portents of doom than are the snowballs that my sons and I throw at each other after the snowstorms we get here in Cloudcroft.

Some of this ignorance and superstition is retaining its old form. I've had people tell me that Hale-Bopp is "an angel from God," and I even had one person say that Hale-Bopp is God. I've seen lots of discussion referring to Hale-Bopp as one of the "signs of the end times" and claims that it is a fulfillment of the prophecies in Revelation or the prophecies of Nostradamus, or other such prophecies.

Some of this ignorance and superstition has mutated into a newer form. Almost from day one I have heard claims that Hale-Bopp is an "alien mothership" or is "under intelligent control" or some such. And then, of course, there is this business of the "mysterious Saturn-shaped companion" following Hale-Bopp that broke last November. According to the claims, this was an "alien spacecraft, four times larger than Earth," coming to do one of various things to us.

After that story broke out, I received a number of inquiries from the press, almost as many as I received yesterday. It didn't take me long to figure out what was going on: the object that was photographed was nothing more than a bright background star that the comet happened to be located next to on the night in question. Once I had determined this I posted this explanation, along with the photographs to prove it, on the World Wide Web.

But ignorance and superstition didn't want to hear this. I was called a "traitor to Earth" for "withholding information." I was called a lot of other names that I can't repeat in this company. Even now I still get questions about this, and I still encounter people who are adamant that there is a "companion" following Hale-Bopp. I've even pointed out the comet to these people and asked them to show me where this "companion" is, something they can't do, of course. And now, this has been carried to an extreme; 39 people have now lost their lives as a result of this ignorance and superstition.

How many more of these types of reports are we going to have to listen to before we finally decide that we are going to use the candle of science, and the reasoning skills that we have, to take back the darkness from the ignorance and superstition that is enveloping us?

What I want everyone to do... is, tonight, to drop what you're doing, forget about the world for a minute, go outside, look up in the northwest, and take a look at this comet. It's a beautiful object. It's lovely. It's one of the most magnificent celestial objects you will ever see. But for all its beauty, its magnificence, its splendor, all it is is a dirty snowball that's orbiting the sun. Nothing more. It has no influence on Earthly events. It has no power to affect anything that happens here on Earth. It has no power, but we do. We have the power to build a world for the 3rd Millennium that is free of the ignorance and superstition that is so rampant in our society today. We have that power. What I'd like you to do when you're looking at the comet tonight is to think of some ways to make that happen. I'd like to hear what you come up with.

Here in Gainesville the Art Bell show on WRUF-AM (a UF station) has been propagating some of the nuttier speculations about alien companions to the comet, etc. Call WRUF and tell them a college station has no place spreading sensationalistic lies and anti-scientific mumbo-jumbo.

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