I haven’t had the privilege of seeing a comet in the sky. It’s not a terrible misfortune, as comets that are bright enough to be seen by casual observation, the Great ones, are rare phenomenon. Yet I’d very much like to see these celestial objects because they embody astronomical wonder. Their fierce streak and brilliant tails have brought awe and terror to people throughout history: they have been seen as omens of the death of kings, or the conquest of countries.
But astronomers, beginning in the Middle Ages, looked up at these objects and decided to study them, patiently tracking them through the years and performing calculations on their appearances. They speculated, and made observations to support their theories. They explained the legendary appearances as natural fact. Centuries later, and we now have scientific organizations sending their instruments right to the hearts of such heavenly objects.
Gazing at the night sky to make sense of the countless blinking lights is clearly a universal hobby. All the ancient civilizations loved it: the geeky Greeks, the elegant Egyptians, even the mysterious Mayans. In between farming, warring, and the other simply joys of ancient civilization, these people found time, lots of it, to just look up and imagine all sorts of pictures that could be outlined by the random positions of the stars. (They found, among others, a crab, a cup, and a hunter along with his two dogs.)
Equipped with only their eyes and inquistive minds, they left us with all sorts of fascinating explanations for the persistent wonder of the night-time sky. We have stories of gods and goddesses, huge sky domes and celestial machinery that keep the sky moving through day and night.