Physics Question #351

patric hedlund, a 15 year old female from the Internet asks on March 1, 1998,

According to my family, a comet streaked through the sky the morning one of my uncles was born. His birthdate is June 23, 1931, 4 a.m., state of Iowa, USA. Do you have records showing such a comet in 1931?

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The answer

Donald J. Barry answered on March 1, 1998

I have searched through the most comprehensive compendium of cometary apparitions, "Comets: A Descriptive Catalog", by Gary W. Kronk, and have not been able to locate a comet matching this description. In general, medium and short period comets are not particularly bright. Halley is the famous exception, and, of course, comets appear in the sky for days and weeks at a time, visible from the entire northern or southern hemisphere (and often much of both).

The only "bright" comet near that time was 1931 IV (Comet Ryves), which was discovered on 10 August 1931 as a naked-eye visible object in Gemini. It brightened until 20 August, when it was lost in twilight near the sun. On emerging from twilight into the morning sky in early October, it required a telescope or binoculars to see. This comet would appear once every 290 years.

As for an object which "streaked through the sky", it is more likely that this was a particularly bright meteor, perhaps recorded in local newspapers of the time. Family legends often adopt these to serve as harbingers of greatness: even Shakespeare uses this device in Henry IV (Part I): Glendower: I cannot blame him: at my nativity The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes, Of burning cressets; and at my birth The frame and huge foundation of the earth Shak'd like a coward.

Hotspur: Why, so it would have done, At the same season, if your mother's cat Had but kitten'd, though yourself had ne'er been born.

Glendower: I say the earth did shake when I was born.

Hotspur: And I say the earth was not of my mind, If you suppose as fearing you it shook.

Glendower: The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble.

Hotspur: O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire, And not in fear of your nativity.

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