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Swift Comets

July 16, 2012

To the people of Cortland, New York, Lewis Swift was a bit of an oddity. Most nights, for a little while after sunset and before sunrise, the hardware merchant used a small telescope to scan the skies close to the Sun.

In 1862, though, his status changed from “oddity” to “celebrity.” On July 16th, Swift discovered a comet — one that went on to stage a great show. And today, the comet is better known as the parent of August’s Perseid meteor shower.

Swift was born on Leap Day of 1820. At age 13, he fractured his hip in an accident, so for the next couple of years he devoted more time to study than farm work. In 1850 he developed an interest in microscopes. And a few years later, he built his first telescope.

Swift became fascinated by comets after viewing a brilliant one in 1858, and making it the topic of his first scientific paper.

When Swift first saw the comet of 1862, he wasn’t sure if it was new or one that had been seen before. A few days later, though, he heard that astronomer Horace Tuttle had reported the discovery of the same comet Swift had seen. Swift quickly reported his own observations, so the comet was named Swift-Tuttle in their honor. More about the comet tomorrow.

After 1862, the comet disappeared from view for more than a century. Swift discovered several more comets, and eventually became a full-time astronomer, studying everything from eclipses to galaxies — a career built on the discovery of a comet.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012


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