Hands trembling, Johannes Kepler opens the tripod of his telescope and points its leather-bound tube towards the western sky. As night approaches, the sky turns a dark blue. Stars, shining in the firmament, become more visible.
It is a momentous year for the astronomer and astrologer. After formulating his third law of planetary motion he now works on preparing it for publication in the following year.
This evening his interest does not lie in the traverse of the planets. That would be a distraction from the important observations he wishes to make of the strange phenomenon gripping the imaginations of the people that year.
Within the space of a few months, two bright comets have become visible in the night sky, observed by many other astronomers, beside himself, around the world. Both Father Giovani Vremano in China and Father Manuel Dias in India have reported sightings.
The appearances of these objects, streaking across the heavens, cause grave concern among the general population. Many think of them as omens of evil.
Kepler tilts the telescope and stoops to look through the tube. He scans the night sky, picking out the distinctive tails of the two comets, until… he cries out in surprise. Above the setting sun is a spot of light, barely visible in the murky atmosphere, blazing red with a long tail. Is it a third comet? Several parts seem to split from the head of the comet. A cluster of bright stars, each with its own tail, travelling towards the Earth.
He keeps staring but the image blurs and jumps out of sight. He shakes his head in frustration. Is it another comet, one of a group of comets? Or just an aberration of light refracted in the glass?
Kepler is wary of recording this strange observation. Some ten tears earlier he’d written a novel. Many years in the future it will be referred to, by an exponent of the genre, as one of the first works of science fiction. In the story, the mother of the narrator, who makes a living selling bags of herbs with strange markings, consults a demon to learn the means of space travel. Although clearly fiction, a way of describing lunar astronomy in a popular manner, the story is presently being used as evidence against Katherine, his mother. She’s been caught up in the witch-hunts sweeping the country. Even Kepler admits that she is a grumpy old woman. But it’s her claim to be a healer that has given neighbours she feuds with the excuse to make charges of sorcery against her. One says the old woman gave her a potion after an argument, which made her sick. Another accuses her of killing local animals and even turning herself into a cat. Complete nonsense, of course. But this is not the time to write of odd sightings in the sky that people already claim to be supernatural.
So, he does not document what he has seen, for fear of the injurious effect it might have on his mother’s forthcoming trial.
He reasons that his eyes probably deceived him anyway.
Kepler’s eyesight had been perfect. This third unusually bright and spectacular red-hued comet passes by the Earth in early December. The tail stretches all the way from Libra, in the southern sky, to the Big Dipper, in the far-northern sky. It grows so bright that it is visible even during the day. Because of its colour, the length of its tail, and its long run in the sky, it comes to be called the Angry Star.
The comets of 1618, having made an indelible print on the minds of common folk, even feature on coins. In retrospect, people come to believe that they caused the ills that befell the world at that time.
Kepler himself writes an astrology book featuring the comets. Having successfully defended his mother and procured her release, he no longer fears the consequences of his name being linked to these celestial objects. He’s also keen to write a popular book, one that will achieve greater sales than the limited readership of his scientific treatises.
So, he makes much of the “meaning” of the appearance of the Angry Star and of its influence on human affairs, speculating that contact with a comet’s tail might produce pestilence. No surprise, then, that many blame the comet for the infectious disease that scours its way through Hindustan in the following years.
There is no difficulty in finding sensational events that happened shortly before, or soon after the appearance of the “angry” comet. The Thirty Years War starts in that year. The comet comes to be regarded as a prophecy of the eight million deaths from the violence, famine, and plague it brings about.
The comet is not responsible for any of these events. The real danger from the Angry Star is yet to come.