Book Review: Year of the Comets

In the 1990’s two great spectacles arrived for the heaven watchers, comet Hyakutake and then comet Hale-Bopp. They separately graced the night time magnificence with their displays of light; their leading dirty snowball and following millions of kilometres of fairy tale, sparkling, shiny powder. Transitory in nature, they’ve come to be more a light show than the portenders of the future they once were thought to be. Yet in all their beauty, they also represent an element of the mystery of the universe. Where do they come from? What are they made of? What causes them to cyclically reappear?

Jan DeBlieu doesn’t answer these questions in her book, nor does she even try. At most she’s drawing a corollary between the great unknowns of the universe and the great unknowns of our own being. She makes this connection when two significant events happen at about the same time in her life. One, of course, is the arrival of the comet Hyakutake. The other is her husband succumbing to depression. Neither were wholly explicable. Neither were predetermined. Both were just short transitions through her life, but she writes about both of them in a light, vivid, soul searching style that presents her grasping to understand the nature of each.

Much as a sad wind blows by leaving a person wondering and reflective, reading this book leaves a person questioning and curious. There are many joys of nature. But to fully appreciate joys, we need sorrow. This is the nature of our being and Jan presents this counterpoint throughout her book. Sweet memorable times with her husband contrast with painful accusations and trying moments. Bright sparkling clusters and supernova remnants strongly contrast against the black background of the universe. Searching for knowledge may only lead us to more questions and a greater feeling of ignorance. Yet, as DeBlieu shows, time continually moves on, things change and we need to enjoy what we can.

Normally writing one book is challenging. DeBlieu seems to make an easy time of writing three books within one cover. For one, she’s a neophyte astronomer/cosmologist who’s all agog over the beauty, complexity and ever changing lights of the night sky. For another, she’s a wife learning to deal with a loved one suffering a challenging disorder. Last, she’s writing an autobiography of her own times, her sadness, her joys and her impressions from living. Each of these three get combined into a bright, emotional sharing of herself with her readers.

The astronomical and cosmological lore within the book are up to date and pertinent. I particular like the presentation of free will. A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can effect the weather around the world. Is it then possible that we are doing the same to the weather of the universe by flinging probes like Pioneer into the nether reaches of space? For the most part, each concept presented does lend itself to the other stories within. Sometimes they don’t but this doesn’t unduly disturb the flow.

Nevertheless, the topics change quickly. In a brief span of the text, that is two pages, DeBlieu discusses the value of drugs in combatting depression, the power of light to draw baby sea turtles and the dark matter that keeps the Milky Way spinning. If this quick flip from one subject to another makes reading enjoyable for you, this is a book for you.

No one can say that their life is better than another’s. Even during difficult times, there’s lots to keep a sense of wonder in one’s heart and a smile on one’s face. All we need do is keep a proper perspective. In Year of the Comets Jan DeBlieu gives us her perspective of her own life; the things that made her smile and those that kept her going even when so much was not going well. Share some of your own time with her memories and take pleasure in the wonders of astronomy.

Review by Mark Mortimer

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