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Comets are wispy and ethereal — balls of gas and dust that often make a single appearance before disappearing into deep space, or that vaporize if they pass too close to the Sun. Yet in the 18th and 19th centuries, these bits of cosmic flotsam were highly prized. Many astronomers scanned for comets night after night, often for decades. And if they found one, it brought medals, rewards, and fame.
No comet hunter was more proficient than Jean-Louis Pons, who was born 250 years ago tomorrow.
Pons was born to a poor family, so he received little formal education. At age 27, he was hired as a porter at the University of Marseilles. The astronomers there gave him lessons, and he soon began scanning the skies — eventually using telescopes he built himself.
Pons discovered his first comet in 1801 — but it wouldn’t be his last. And as the discoveries piled up, his fame spread. Marseilles made him an assistant astronomer, and a few years later he was appointed director of a new observatory in Tuscany. When that observatory failed, he became director of another, in Florence.
And all the while, he kept on finding comets. In all, he’s credited with discovering or co-discovering 37 of them — more than any other person in history.
Today, most comets are found by automated searches, or by orbiting spacecraft, and the discoveries seldom make headlines. With rare exceptions, comets no longer bring fame and fortune to those who find them.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011