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Halley and the Crowd at Denny’s

Times Science Writer

My wife and I rolled out of bed at 3:45 a.m. recently for one more look at Halley’s comet. We drove a few blocks to the tip of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where the lights of the city would be behind us and Halley would be visible in the dark sky over the Pacific.

But scores of others had the same idea. When we reached the bluff near the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor, so many cars were parked in what is usually a deserted area that time of night that it was difficult to find a parking place. Dozens of persons stood on top of the bluff, pointing binoculars at a fuzzy patch in the southern sky.

Many who had trouble finding the comet were helped by strangers who had already seen it. Binoculars were passed among instant friends so that all could share in the moment. One man with a small celestial telescope beckoned to friends and strangers alike, eager to help others see the distant wonder.

“I can see it, I can see it,” one young man said. He handed back a set of borrowed binoculars and walked quietly off into the dark.

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Drove to Denny’s

Later, we drove to Denny’s in San Pedro, one of the few restaurants in that area open all night. Within minutes, the restaurant, which usually caters to the needs of only a handful of early risers at such an unearthly hour, was packed with people who had been out to see the comet, mostly families with small children.

One young boy rested his head on the shoulder of his father and quickly fell asleep, securely wrapped in a cocoon shared only with his dad.

Elsewhere in the restaurant, small children talked excitedly with their parents about all the things small children hold back for just such a moment of intimacy. Some simply stared in silence as wise parents struggled to explain why it was so important to roust them out of bed hours before sunrise so they could try to find a fuzzy little patch in the sky.

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This was the best opportunity, one father explained, to see something that has mystified humans since before the birth of Christ. The father knew he will not be around when it comes back again. His children might.

They had been out to see a dusty iceberg that comes this way only once every three-quarters of a century. It bears the name of the scientist who said so long ago that it would be back, and then he died before he got a chance to see it return himself.

By all accounts, Sir Edmond Halley was a most extraordinary man. Historians say he loved a good time, but he was also a serious scientist, intrigued with new ideas. It was that combination, no doubt, that allowed him to overlook the personality flaws in a man who became his close friend.

Halley played a crucial role in persuading Isaac Newton to publish his theories about how the universe operates, theories that to this day stand among the monumental insights of mankind. But Newton was as cantankerous as he was brilliant, offending British society with his arrogant manner as much as he challenged the world of science to match his genius.

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That such a friendship should develop between the arrogant Newton and the gregarious Halley probably tells more about Halley than his scientific achievements.

Halley undoubtedly would have enjoyed spending Friday morning on the bluff above the Pacific, gazing at his comet with one eye and watching observers with the other.

But he probably would have enjoyed breakfast at Denny’s even more.


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