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Young Folks' Library: Wonders of Earth, Sea and Sky

Comets
(From Marvels of the Heavens.)
By
CAMILLE FLAMMARION.
"Je viens vous annoncer une grande nouvelle:
Nous l'avons, en dormant, madame, échappé belle.
Un monde près de nous a passé tout du long,
Est chu tout au travers de notre tourbillon;
Et s'il eût en chemin rencontré notre terre,
Elle eût été brisée en morceaux comme verre."
Molière.
worlds; and therefore it can scarcely be for it alone that all the
wonders of the heavens, of which the immense majority remains hidden from it, were
created. In this disposition of man to see in himself the centre and the end of everything,
it was easy indeed to consider the steps of nature as unfolded in his favor; and if some
unusual phenomenon presented itself, it was considered to be without doubt a warning
from Heaven. If these illusions had had no other result than the amelioration of the more
timorous of the community one would regret these ages of ignorance; but not only were
these fancied warnings of no use, seeing that once the danger passed, man returned to his
former state; but they also kept up among people imaginary terrors, and revived the fatal
resolutions caused by the fear of the end of the world.
252]
When one fancies the world is about to end,—and this has been believed for more than a
thousand years,—no solicitude is felt in the work of improving this world; and, by the
indifference or disdain into which one falls, periods of famine and general misery are
induced which at certain times have overtaken our community. Why use the wealth of a
world which is going to perish? Why work, be instructed, or rise in the progress of the
sciences or arts? Much better to forget the world, and absorb one's self in the barren
contemplation of an unknown life. It is thus that ages of ignorance weigh on man, and
thrust him further and further into darkness, while Science makes known by its influence
on the whole community, its great value, and the magnitude of its aim.
episode of the great history of the
heavens. In it could be brought together the description of the progressive movement of
human thought, as well as the astronomical theory of these extraordinary bodies. Let us
take, for example, one of the most memorable and best-known comets, and give an
outline of its successive passages near the Earth. Like the planetary worlds, Comets
belong to the solar system, and are subject to the rule of the Star King. It is the universal
law of gravitation which guides their path; solar attraction governs them, as it governs the
movement of the planets and the small satellites. The chief point of difference between
them and the planets is, that their orbits are very elongated; and, instead of being nearly
253]
This announcement of Trissontin's to Philaminte, who begins the parody on the fears
caused by the appearance of comets, would not have been a parody four or five centuries
ago. These tailed bodies, which suddenly come to light up the heavens, were for long
regarded with terror, like so many warning signs of divine wrath. Men have always
thought themselves much more important than they really are in the universal order; they
have had the vanity to pretend that the whole creation was made for them, whilst in
reality the whole creation does not suspect their existence. The Earth we inhabit is only
one of the smallest [pg
The history of a comet would be an instructive [pg
 
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