With some excitement, 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, however, his interest lies not in the traverse of the planets. They would only be a distraction from the important observations he wishes to make of the strange phenomenon gripping the imagination of the people that year.
Within the space of a few months, two bright comets have become visible in the night sky observed by himself, and many other astronomers around the world. Both Father Giovani Vremano in China, and Father Manuel Dias in India, have reported sightings.
The appearance of these objects, streaking across the heavens, causes 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 first one, and then the other, distinctive tails of the two comets, until… he cries out in surprise. A spot of red light above the setting sun. Barely visible, in the murky atmosphere, blazing red with a long tail? Was it a third comet? Suddenly, several parts seem to split from the head of the comet. A cluster of bright stars, each with its own tail and travelling together. Towards the Earth.
He keeps staring, but the image blurs and jumps out of sight. He shakes his head, in frustration. Had it been a comet? Or just an aberration of light refracted in the glass?
Unsure, he decides not to record his sighting. He does not wish to invite ridicule from his fellow astronomers, just before his new law is presented to the world.
But, his eyes have not deceived him. A third and unusually bright and spectacular object, a 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 made such an indelible print on the minds of common folk, they even featured on coins. In retrospect, they were linked to the ills that befell the world at that time. Kepler, himself, in later years, wrote an astrology book featuring the comets. Intended to have a popular sale, he found it necessary to make the most of the “meaning” of the appearance of “the Angry Star”, and of its influence on human affairs. He speculated that contact with a comet’s tail might produce. No surprise then, that they blamed the comet for an infectious disease that scoured its way through Hindustan.
There was no difficulty in find sensational events which happened shortly before, or soon after, the appearance of the “angry” comet. The Thirty Years War started in that year. The comet is regarded as a prophecy of the eight million deaths from the violence, famine, and plague it brought about.
However, the comet was not responsible for any of these events. The real danger, from “the Angry Star”, was yet to come.