The meteorite crash in Russia last month served as a reminder to us that there is an entire universe of activity out there. Fortunately, we have the technology and knowledge to understand these things. With the exception of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic party, who insisted that the meteorite was detritus from America testing new weapons, it is generally understood that they were meteoric materials falling from space.
In the past these ʻfalling starsʼ were seen as a sign of hope, but more commonly as a warning of danger. In particular, the famous Halleyʼs Comet has been seen as a portent of disaster where ever it appeared. In the Middle Ages comets were blamed for wars and the death of kings. In 1066 William the Conqueror led the Norman Conquest of England and the passing of Halley’s Comet was thought to presage the end of King Harold’s reign, cursing him and causing his death at Hastings.
During Christian Europe’s struggle with the Ottoman Empire, Pope Callixtus III ordered everyone into immediate prayer when a comet appeared in 1456. He claimed it was an instrument of the devil and excommunicated it. Halley’s Comet was eventually blamed for the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.
Even as late as 1908, astronomers at the Chicago Yerkes Observatory claimed that the gas in a comet’s tail could obliterate all living things. Many people expected the end of the world and chaos broke out. They sealed their windows and stocked up on gas masks, Anti-Comet pills and Comet Protection umbrellas.
Modern science assures us that these suspicions were false. However, these beliefs were strongly held as a way of explaining cataclysmic events. We should not completely disregard them because of our privileged position; examining the historical response to extra-terrestrial objects gives us greater insight into how people in the past thought about their place in the universe.