Off on a Comet: Part Two

Chapter III

The Professor’s Experiences

“Yes, my comet!” repeated the professor, and from time to time he knitted his brows, and looked around him with a defiant air, as though he could not get rid of the impression that someone was laying an unwarranted claim to its proprietorship, or that the individuals before him were intruders upon his own proper domain.

But for a considerable while, Servadac, the count, and the lieutenant remained silent and sunk in thought. Here then, at last, was the unriddling of the enigma they had been so long endeavoring to solve; both the hypotheses they had formed in succession had now to give way before the announcement of the real truth. The first supposition, that the rotatory axis of the earth had been subject to some accidental modification, and the conjecture that replaced it, namely, that a certain portion of the terrestrial sphere had been splintered off and carried into space, had both now to yield to the representation that the earth had been grazed by an unknown comet, which had caught up some scattered fragments from its surface, and was bearing them far away into sidereal regions. Unfolded lay the past and the present before them; but this only served to awaken a keener interest about the future. Could the professor throw any light upon that? they longed to inquire, but did not yet venture to ask him.

Meanwhile Rosette assumed a pompous professional air, and appeared to be waiting for the entire party to be ceremoniously introduced to him. Nothing unwilling to humor the vanity of the eccentric little man, Servadac proceeded to go through the expected formalities.

“Allow me to present to you my excellent friend, the Count Timascheff,” he said.

“You are very welcome,” said Rosette, bowing to the count with a smile of condescension.

“Although I am not precisely a voluntary resident on your comet, Mr. Professor, I beg to acknowledge your courteous reception,” gravely responded Timascheff.

Servadac could not quite conceal his amusement at the count’s irony, but continued, “This is Lieutenant Procope, the officer in command of the Dobryna.”

The professor bowed again in frigid dignity.

“His yacht has conveyed us right round Gallia,” added the captain.

“Round Gallia?” eagerly exclaimed the professor.

“Yes, entirely round it,” answered Servadac, and without allowing time for reply, proceeded, “And this is my orderly, Ben Zoof.”

“Aide-de-camp to his Excellency the Governor of Gallia,” interposed Ben Zoof himself, anxious to maintain his master’s honor as well as his own.

Rosette scarcely bent his head.

The rest of the population of the Hive were all presented in succession: the Russian sailors, the Spaniards, young Pablo, and little Nina, on whom the professor, evidently no lover of children, glared fiercely through his formidable spectacles. Isaac Hakkabut, after his introduction, begged to be allowed to ask one question.

“How soon may we hope to get back?” he inquired,

“Get back!” rejoined Rosette, sharply; “who talks of getting back? We have hardly started yet.”

Seeing that the professor was inclined to get angry, Captain Servadac adroitly gave a new turn to the conversation by asking him whether he would gratify them by relating his own recent experiences. The astronomer seemed pleased with the proposal, and at once commenced a verbose and somewhat circumlocutory address, of which the following summary presents the main features.

The French Government, being desirous of verifying the measurement already made of the arc of the meridian of Paris, appointed a scientific commission for that purpose. From that commission the name of Palmyrin Rosette was omitted, apparently for no other reason than his personal unpopularity. Furious at the slight, the professor resolved to set to work independently on his own account, and declaring that there were inaccuracies in the previous geodesic operations, he determined to re-examine the results of the last triangulation which had united Formentera to the Spanish coast by a triangle, one of the sides of which measured over a hundred miles, the very operation which had already been so successfully accomplished by Arago and Biot.

Accordingly, leaving Paris for the Balearic Isles, he placed his observatory on the highest point of Formentera, and accompanied as he was only by his servant, Joseph, led the life of a recluse. He secured the services of a former assistant, and dispatched him to a high peak on the coast of Spain, where he had to superintend a rever-berator, which, with the aid of a glass, could be seen from Formentera. A few books and instruments, and two months’ victuals, was all the baggage he took with him, except an excellent astronomical telescope, which was, indeed, almost part and parcel of himself, and with which he assiduously scanned the heavens, in the sanguine anticipation of making some discovery which would immortalize his name.

The task he had undertaken demanded the utmost patience. Night after night, in order to fix the apex of his triangle, he had to linger on the watch for the assistant’s signal-light, but he did not forget that his predecessors, Arago and Biot, had had to wait sixty-one days for a similar purpose. What retarded the work was the dense fog which, it has been already mentioned, at that time enveloped not only that part of Europe, but almost the entire world.

Never failing to turn to the best advantage the few intervals when the mist lifted a little, the astronomer would at the same time cast an inquiring glance at the firmament, as he was greatly interested in the revision of the chart of the heavens, in the region contiguous to the constellation Gemini.

To the naked eye this constellation consists of only six stars, but through a telescope ten inches in diameter, as many as six thousand are visible. Rosette, however, did not possess a reflector of this magnitude, and was obliged to content himself with the good but comparatively small instrument he had.

On one of these occasions, whilst carefully gauging the recesses of Gemini, he espied a bright speck which was unregistered in the chart, and which at first he took for a small star that had escaped being entered in the catalogue. But the observation of a few separate nights soon made it manifest that the star was rapidly changing its position with regard to the adjacent stars, and the astronomer’s heart began to leap at the thought that the renown of the discovery of a new planet would be associated with his name.

Redoubling his attention, he soon satisfied himself that what he saw was not a planet; the rapidity of its displacement rather forced him to the conjecture that it must be a comet, and this opinion was soon strengthened by the appearance of a coma, and subsequently confirmed, as the body approached the sun, by the development of a tail.

A comet! The discovery was fatal to all further progress in the triangulation. However conscientiously the assistant on the Spanish coast might look to the kindling of the beacon, Rosette had no glances to spare for that direction; he had no eyes except for the one object of his notice, no thoughts apart from that one quarter of the firmament.

A comet! No time must be lost in calculating its elements.

Now, in order to calculate the elements of a comet, it is always deemed the safest mode of procedure to assume the orbit to be a parabola. Ordinarily, comets are conspicuous at their perihelia, as being their shortest distances from the sun, which is the focus of their orbit, and inasmuch as a parabola is but an ellipse with its axis indefinitely produced, for some short portion of its pathway the orbit may be indifferently considered either one or the other; but in this particular case the professor was right in adopting the supposition of its being parabolic.

Just as in a circle, it is necessary to know three points to determine the circumference; so in ascertaining the elements of a comet, three different positions must be observed before what astronomers call its “ephemeris” can be established.

But Professor Rosette did not content himself with three positions; taking advantage of every rift in the fog he made ten, twenty, thirty observations both in right ascension and in declination, and succeeded in working out with the most minute accuracy the five elements of the comet which was evidently advancing with astounding rapidity towards the earth.

These elements were:

l. The inclination of the plane of the cometary orbit to the plane of the ecliptic, an angle which is generally considerable, but in this case the planes were proved to coincide.

2. The position of the ascending node, or the point where the comet crossed the terrestrial orbit.

These two elements being obtained, the position in space of the comet’s orbit was determined.

3. The direction of the axis major of the orbit, which was found by calculating the longitude of the comet’s perihelion.

4. The perihelion distance from the sun, which settled the precise form of the parabola.

5. The motion of the comet, as being retrograde, or, unlike the planets, from east to west.

Rosette thus found himself able to calculate the date at which the comet would reach its perihelion, and, overjoyed at his discovery, without thinking of calling it Palmyra or Rosette, after his own name, he resolved that it should be known as Gallia.

His next business was to draw up a formal report. Not only did he at once recognize that a collision with the earth was possible, but he soon foresaw that it was inevitable, and that it must happen on the night of the 31st of December; moreover, as the bodies were moving in opposite directions, the shock could hardly fail to be violent.

To say that he was elated at the prospect was far below the truth; his delight amounted almost to delirium. Anyone else would have hurried from the solitude of Formentera in sheer fright; but, without communicating a word of his startling discovery, he remained resolutely at his post. From occasional newspapers which he had received, he had learnt that fogs, dense as ever, continued to envelop both hemispheres, so that he was assured that the existence of the comet was utterly unknown elsewhere; and the ignorance of the world as to the peril that threatened it averted the panic that would have followed the publication of the facts, and left the philosopher of Formentera in sole possession of the great secret. He clung to his post with the greater persistency, because his calculations had led him to the conclusion that the comet would strike the earth somewhere to the south of Algeria, and as it had a solid nucleus, he felt sure that, as he expressed it, the effect would be “unique,” and he was anxious to be in the vicinity.

The shock came, and with it the results already recorded. Palmyrin Rosette was suddenly separated from his servant Joseph, and when, after a long period of unconsciousness, he came to himself, he found that he was the solitary occupant of the only fragment that survived of the Balearic Archipelago.

Such was the substance of the narrative which the professor gave with sundry repetitions and digressions; while he was giving it, he frequently paused and frowned as if irritated in a way that seemed by no means justified by the patient and good-humored demeanor of his audience.

“But now, gentlemen,” added the professor, “I must tell you something more. Important changes have resulted from the collision; the cardinal points have been displaced; gravity has been diminished: not that I ever supposed for a minute, as you did, that I was still upon the earth. No! the earth, attended by her moon, continued to rotate along her proper orbit. But we, gentlemen, have nothing to complain of; our destiny might have been far worse; we might all have been crushed to death, or the comet might have remained in adhesion to the earth; and in neither of these cases should we have had the satisfaction of making this marvelous excursion through untraversed solar regions. No, gentlemen, I repeat it, we have nothing to regret.”

And as the professor spoke, he seemed to kindle with the emotion of such supreme contentment that no one had the heart to gainsay his assertion. Ben Zoof alone ventured an unlucky remark to the effect that if the comet had happened to strike against Montmartre, instead of a bit of Africa, it would have met with some resistance.

“Pshaw!” said Rosette, disdainfully. “A mole-hill like Montmartre would have been ground to powder in a moment.”

“Mole-hill!” exclaimed Ben Zoof, stung to the quick. “I can tell you it would have caught up your bit of a comet and worn it like a feather in a cap.”

The professor looked angry, and Servadac having imposed silence upon his orderly, explained the worthy soldier’s sensitiveness on all that concerned Montmartre. Always obedient to his master, Ben Zoof held his tongue; but he felt that he could never forgive the slight that had been cast upon his beloved home.

It was now all-important to learn whether the astronomer had been able to continue his observations, and whether he had learned sufficient of Gallia’s path through space to make him competent to determine, at least approximately, the period of its revolution round the sun. With as much tact and caution as he could, Lieutenant Procope endeavored to intimate the general desire for some information on this point.

“Before the shock, sir,” answered the professor, “I had conclusively demonstrated the path of the comet; but, in consequence of the modifications which that shock has entailed upon my comet’s orbit, I have been compelled entirely to recommence my calculations.”

The lieutenant looked disappointed.

“Although the orbit of the earth was unaltered,” continued the professor, “the result of the collision was the projection of the comet into a new orbit altogether.”

“And may I ask,” said Procope, deferentially, “whether you have got the elements of the fresh orbit?”


“Then perhaps you know—”

“ I know this, sir, that at 47 minutes 35.6 seconds after two o’clock on the morning of the 1st of January last, Gallia, in passing its ascending node, came in contact with the earth; that on the 10th of January it crossed the orbit of Venus; that it reached its perihelion on the 15th; that it re-crossed the orbit of Venus; that on the 1st of February it passed its descending node; on the 13th crossed the orbit of Mars; entered the zone of the telescopic planets on the 10th of March, and, attracting Nerina, carried it off as a satellite.”

Servadac interposed:

“We are already acquainted with well-nigh all these extraordinary facts; many of them, moreover, we have learned from documents which we have picked up, and which, although unsigned, we cannot entertain a doubt have originated with you.”

Professor Rosette drew himself up proudly and said: “Of course, they originated with me. I sent them off by hundreds. From whom else could they come?”

“From no one but yourself, certainly,” rejoined the count, with grave politeness.

Hitherto the conversation had thrown no light upon the future movements of Gallia, and Rosette was disposed apparently to evade, or at least to postpone, the subject. When, therefore, Lieutenant Procope was about to press his inquiries in a more categorical form, Servadac, thinking it advisable not prematurely to press the little savant too far, interrupted him by asking the professor how he accounted for the earth having suffered so little from such a formidable concussion.

“I account for it in this way,” answered Rosette: “the earth was traveling at the rate of 28,000 leagues an hour, and Gallia at the rate of 57,000 leagues an hour, therefore the result was the same as though a train rushing along at a speed of about 86,000 leagues an hour had suddenly encountered some obstacle. The nucleus of the comet, being excessively hard, has done exactly what a ball would do fired with that velocity close to a pane of glass. It has crossed the earth without cracking it.”

“It is possible you may be right,” said Servadac, thoughtfully.

“Right! of course I am right!” replied the snappish professor. Soon, however, recovering his equanimity, he continued: “It is fortunate that the earth was only touched obliquely; if the comet had impinged perpendicularly, it must have plowed its way deep below the surface, and the disasters it might have caused are beyond reckoning. Perhaps,” he added, with a smile, “even Montmartre might not have survived the calamity.”

“Sir!” shouted Ben Zoof, quite unable to bear the unprovoked attack.

“Quiet, Ben Zoof!” said Servadac sternly.

Fortunately for the sake of peace, Isaac Hakkabut, who at length was beginning to realize something of the true condition of things, came forward at this moment, and in a voice trembling with eagerness, implored the professor to tell him when they would all be back again upon the earth.

“Are you in a great hurry?” asked the professor coolly.

The Jew was about to speak again, when Captain Servadac interposed: “Allow me to say that, in somewhat more scientific terms, I was about to ask you the same question. Did I not understand you to say that, as the consequence of the collision, the character of the comet’s orbit has been changed?”

“You did, sir.”

“Did you imply that the orbit has ceased to be a parabola?”

“Just so.”

“Is it then an hyperbola? and are we to be carried on far and away into remote distance, and never, never to return?”

“I did not say an hyperbola.”

“And is it not?”

“It is not.”

“Then it must be an ellipse?”


“And does its plane coincide with the plane of the earth?”


“Then it must be a periodic comet?”

“It is.”

Servadac involuntarily raised a ringing shout of joy that echoed again along the gallery.

“Yes,” continued the professor, “Gallia is a periodic comet, and allowing for the perturbations to which it is liable from the attraction of Mars and Jupiter and Saturn, it will return to the earth again in two years precisely.”

“You mean that in two years after the first shock, Gallia will meet the earth at the same point as they met before?” said Lieutenant Procope.

“I am afraid so,” said Rosette.

“Why afraid?”

“Because we are doing exceedingly well as we are.” The professor stamped his foot upon the ground, by way of emphasis, and added, “If I had my will, Gallia should never return to the earth again!”

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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 15:48:03 $