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In Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, we are introduced to Ned Land as he is talking with professor Aronnax, and he says this:

"That's just where you're mistaken, professor," Ned replied. "The common man may still believe in fabulous comets crossing outer space, or in prehistoric monsters living at the earth's core, but astronomers and geologists don't swallow such fairy tales."

Land claims that there were fabulous (i.e. exaggerated) stories of comets commonly believed at the time but not accepted by astronomers. But at the time the book was published (1870), I believe comets were commonly studied by astronomers. Why did he say this? Maybe I am missing some historical context.

  • Curiously, the sentence appears to allude to central aspects of two works by Verne himself ("Journey to the Center of the Earth" of course, and the less famous "Hector Servadac"), almost like an inside joke. But I don't think that would have been characteristic of the literary style of the era. And besides, Hector Servadac wasn't published until 1877; so it's almost certainly a coincidence. – Euro Micelli Sep 6 '18 at 5:47
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"When beggars die, there are no comets seen, the stars themselves proclaim the deaths of princes" - Shakespeare.

For thousands of years people believed that any dramatic change in the heavens - like a visible comet - was an omen of disaster. Since disasters were constantly happening, it was easy for the superstitious to find disasters happening near the times that comets were seen. 19th century astronomers considered comets natural astronomical objects with no role as omens.

And in the 19th century when many people knew about the physical nature of comets, superstitious comet fear took on a new form disguised as rational fear. Many people feared that a comet passing by might poison the atmosphere with poison gas from the tail, or collide with Earth and destroy it. Of course astronomers knew that the gases in a comet's tail were extremely thin and couldn't poison the atmosphere, and believed that comets were too small to devastate more than a small region of Earth if they collided - maybe wipe out a city but not kill everything on Earth.

But in the last few decades astronomers have discovered the centaur class of comets, some of which are much larger than ordinary comets and could cause massive extinctions if they collided with Earth.

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