Halley's Comet sighted by the Greeks?

So there's a story going about that the ancient Greeks may have spotted Halley's Comet. It comes from a paper published by two academics at Brigham Young University named Graham and Hintz.

The claim relies on an excerpt from Meteorology, written by Aristotle, that a rock the size of a wagon fell to earth in the second year after the 78th Olympiad, and that a philosopher named Anaxagoras predicted it. This caught my attention as much because I use Anaxagoras as a character in The Ionia Sanction! Anaxagoras was a pre-Socratic philosopher. Though only just pre-Socratic; young Socrates was aged between 2 and 4 years old when the meteor hit. Anaxagoras was also well known among the ancient Greeks for his wild idea that all matter was composed of infinitesimally small particles.

The suggestion that Anaxagoras could have predicted a meteor fall is obviously rubbish. But Aristotle mentions in passing that a comet was visible in the sky when the rock fell. As it happens this is in the window for when a Halley's Comet flyby would be expected.

The best you can say is it might have been Halley's comet. If so, it's the earliest known sighting.


Trisha Leigh said...

That's so interesting. Don't you wonder what ideas we are deeming "outlandish" nowadays will seem obvious to people in 2000 years?

Gary Corby said...

Yes indeed. And also which ideas we consider obviously right will disappear.

I'll even predict...

A descendant of the theory of relativity will still be going strong, in the same way that Galilean and Newtonian physics remains strong.

People hundreds of years from now will scratch their heads and think it hilarious how anyone could have believed all that string theory nonsense, and all those weird, overly-complex, non-deterministic quantum fields and the dodgy standard model.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

So you're saying Anaxagoras couldn't have predicted the meteor, but he might have predicted Haley's Comet, right? I picture the Chaldeans and the Egyptians being able to do that during this period, but not necessarily the Greeks (or, at least, the Greeks pre-Library of Alexandria). Is there evidence that Greek philosophers had that capability? You've made me curious!

RWMG said...

Obviously Anaxagoras didn't predict that a meteor would fall at that particular time at that particular place, but one account of this research I read makes it clear that Anaxagoras did theorise that in the right astronomical circumstances rocks falling from the sky were a possibility, and the theory was borne out when this meteor fell.

Gary Corby said...

Anaxagoras couldn't have predicted Halley's Comet unless he had access to historical records which, to the best of our knowledge, don't exist.

You're right Vicky that theoretically the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Babylonians etc might have recorded Halley sightings. But if so, no one knows about them.

It's unlikely there's any earlier Greek record because in order to record something you have to be able to write, and going backwards in time, there's only one more possible Halley pass before the Greeks run out of alphabet. Unless a sighting is recorded in Linear B, which would be beyond cool.

Robert's spot on that Anaxagoras' triumph is the guess that rocks could fall from the sky. In the (somewhat variable) Greek view, space is an unchanging perfection, so anything you see moving about must be part of the earth, but really high up.

Nicole MacDonald said...

pretty cool if it was a sighting :)


Gary Corby said...

Cool indeed, Nicole. But I doubt anyone will ever be able to prove it for sure!