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When Halley's comet passed by before

Halley's Comet, 1910: Fire in the Sky, by Jerred Metz. St. Louis: Singing Bone Press. 124 pp. $13.95. This is a bouncy little book that re-creates the impact of the astronomical event which, 75 years ago, awed the world. Jerred Metz draws largely on contemporary magazines and newspapers to assemble, in 37 brief segments, the reactions of scientists and charlatans, businessmen and politicians, prophets and ordinary men and women as they awaited the coming of the comet -- which returns next April.

Some saw the comet's advent as explanation for all manner of occurrences: German aggression, bad weather or isolated incidents of madness or illness.

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May 18, 1910, the night Earth would pass through the comet's tail, provided the inspiration for scores of ``comet parties,'' including one on the roof of New York's Hotel Knickerbocker.

Said one sanguine guest: ``To me the head appeared to be about the size of an electric light globe such as is used at the hotel, and the tail appeared something like a dim searchlight. I certainly enjoyed the novelty.''

Enterprising purveyors of patent medicine came up with some anti-comet pills ($1 a box) ``guaranteed to protect the purchaser from all cometary evils.'' The evils would ensue when the comet collided with Earth, causing general discomfort, if not total annihilation. Many believed the end was near.

The book, in short, is everything one might want to know, and never think to ask, about the public's response to this particular astronomical phenomenon. It illuminates the starry heavens of a time long past and brings to life the excited observers who shared a momentous event.

Linda Simon is the author of several biographies.

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