by Bill Nye

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Public Domain Books

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<h2>Skimming the Milky Way</h2><p style=


The comet is a kind of astronomical parody on the planet. Comets look some like planets, but they are thinner and do not hurt so hard when they hit anybody as a planet does. The comet was so called because it had hair on it, I believe, but late years the bald-headed comet is giving just as good satisfaction everywhere.

The characteristic features of a comet are: A nucleus, a nebulous light or coma, and usually a luminous train or tail worn high. Sometimes several tails are observed on one comet, but this occurs only in flush times.

When I was young I used to think I would like to be a comet in the sky, up above the world so high, with nothing to do but loaf around and play with the little new-laid planets and have a good time, but now I can see where I was wrong. Comets also have their troubles, their perihilions, their hyperbolas and their parabolas. A little over 300 years ago Tycho Brahe discovered that comets were extraneous to our atmosphere, and since then times have improved. I can see that trade is steadier and potatoes run less to tows than they did before.

Soon after that they discovered that comets all had more or less periodicity. Nobody knows how they got it. All the astronomers had been watching them day and night and didn’t know when they were exposed, but there was no time to talk and argue over the question. There were two or three hundred comets all down with it at once. It was an exciting time.

Comets sometimes live to a great age. This shows that the night air is not so injurious to the health as many people would have us believe. The great comet of 1780 is supposed to have been the one that was noticed about the time of Caesar’s death, 44 B.C., and still, when it appeared in Newton’s time, seventeen hundred years after its first grand farewell tour, Ike said that it was very well preserved, indeed, and seemed to have retained all its faculties in good shape.

Astronomers say that the tails of all comets are turned from the sun. I do not know why they do this, whether it is etiquette among them or just a mere habit.

A later writer on astronomy said that the substance of the nebulosity and the tail is of almost inconceivable tenuity. He said this and then death came to his relief. Another writer says of the comet and its tail that “the curvature of the latter and the acceleration of the periodic time in the case of Encke’s comet indicate their being affected by a resisting medium which has never been observed to have the slightest influence on the planetary periods.”

I do not fully agree with the eminent authority, though he may be right. Much fear has been the result of the comet’s appearance ever since the world began, and it is as good a thing to worry about as anything I know of. If we could get close to a comet without frightening it away, we would find that we could walk through it anywhere as we could through the glare of a torchlight procession. We should so live that we will not be ashamed to look a comet in the eye, however. Let us pay up our newspaper subscription and lead such lives that when the comet strikes we will be ready.

Some worry a good deal about the chances for a big comet to plow into the sun some dark, rainy night, and thus bust up the whole universe. I wish that was all I had to worry about. If any respectable man will agree to pay my taxes and funeral expenses, I will agree to do his worrying about the comet’s crashing into the bosom of the sun and knocking its daylights out.


This luminous body is 92,000,000 miles from the earth, though there have been mornings this winter when it seemed to me that it was further than that. A railway train going at the rate of 40 miles per hour would be 263 years going there, to say nothing of stopping for fuel or water, or stopping on side tracks to wait for freight trains to pass. Several years ago it was discovered that a slight error had been made in the calculations of the sun’s distance from the earth, and, owing to a misplaced logarithm, or something of that kind, a mistake of 3,000,000 miles was made in the result. People cannot be too careful in such matters. Supposing that, on the strength of the information contained in the old time-table, a man should start out with only provisions sufficient to take him 89,000,000 miles and should then find that 3,0000,000 miles still stretched out ahead of him. He would then have to buy fresh figs of the train boy in order to sustain life. Think of buying nice fresh figs on a train that had been en route 250 years!

Imagine a train boy starting out at ten years of age, and perishing at the age of 60 years with only one-fifth of his journey accomplished. Think of five train boys, one after the other, dying of old age on the way, and the train at last pulling slowly into the depot with not a living thing on board except the worms in the “nice eating apples!”

The sun cannot be examined through an ordinary telescope with impunity. Only one man every tried that, and he is now wearing a glass eye that cost him $9.

If you examine the sun through an ordinary solar microscope, you discover that it has a curdled or mottled appearance, as though suffering from biliousness. It is also marked here and there by long streaks of light, called faculae, which look like foam flecks below a cataract. The spots on the sun vary from minute pores the size of an ordinary school district to spots 100,000 miles in diameter, visible to the nude eye. The center of these spots is as black as a brunette cat, and is called the umbra, so called because it resembles an umbrella. The next circle is less dark, and called the penumbra, because it so closely resembles the penumbra.

There are many theories regarding these spots, but, to be perfectly candid with the gentle reader, neither Prof. Proctor nor myself can tell exactly what they are. If we could get a little closer, we flatter ourselves that we could speak more definitely. My own theory is they are either, first, open air caucuses held by the colored people of the sun; or, second, they may be the dark horses in the campaign; or, third, they may be the spots knocked off the defeated candidate by the opposition.

Frankly, however, I do not believe either of these theories to be tenable. Prof. Proctor sneers at these theories also on the ground that these spots do not appear to revolve so fast as the sun. This, however, I am prepared to explain upon the theory that this might be the result of delays in the returns However, I am free to confess that speculative science is filled with the intangible.

The sun revolves upon his or her axletree, as the case may be, once in 25 to 28 of our days, so that a man living there would have almost two years to pay a 30-day note. We should so live that when we come to die we may go at once to the sun.

Regarding the sun’s temperature, Sir John Herschel says that it is sufficient to melt a shell of ice covering its entire surface to a depth of 40 feet. I do not know whether he made this experiment personally or hired a man to do it for him.

The sun is like the star spangled banner–as it is “still there.” You get up to-morrow morning just before sunrise and look away toward the east, and keep on looking in that direction, and at last you will see a fine sight, if what I have been told is true. If the sunrise is as grand as the sunset, it indeed must be one of nature’s most sublime phenomena.

The sun is the great source of light and heat for our earth. If the sun were to go somewhere for a few weeks for relaxation and rest, it would be a cold day for us. The moon, too, would be useless, for she is largely dependent on the sun. Animal life would soon cease and real estate would become depressed in price. We owe very much of our enjoyment to the sun, and not many years ago there were a large number of people who worshiped the sun. When a man showed signs of emotional insanity, they took him up on the observatory of the temple and sacrificed him to the sun. They were a very prosperous and happy people. If the conqueror had not come among them with civilization and guns and grand juries they would have been very happy, indeed.


There is much in the great field of astronomy that is discouraging to the savant who hasn’t the time nor means to rummage around through the heavens. At times I am almost hopeless, and feel like saying to the great yearnful, hungry world: “Grope on forever. Do not ask me for another scientific fact. Find it out yourself. Hunt up your own new-laid planets, and let me have a rest. Never ask me again to sit up all night and take care of a newborn world, while you lie in bed and reck not.”

I get no salary for examining the trackless void night after night when I ought to be in bed. I sacrifice my health in order that the public may know at once of the presence of a red-hot comet, fresh from the factory. And yet, what thanks do I get?

Is it surprising that every little while I contemplate withdrawing from scientific research, to go and skin an eight-mule team down through the dim vista of relentless years?

Then, again, you take a certain style of star, which you learn from Professor Simon Newcomb is such a distance that it takes 50,000 years for its light to reach Boston. Now, we will suppose that after looking over the large stock of new and second-hand stars, and after examining the spring catalogue and price list, I decide that one of the smaller size will do me, and I buy it. How do I know that it was there when I bought it? Its cold and silent rays may have ceased 49,000 years before I was born and the intelligence be still on the way. There is too much margin between sale and delivery. Every now and then another astronomer comes to me and says: “Professor, I have discovered another new star and intend to file it. Found it last night about a mile and a half south of the zenith, running loose. Haven’t heard of anybody who has lost a star of the fifteenth magnitude, about thirteen hands high, with light mane and tail, have you?” Now, how do I know that he has discovered a brand new star? How can I discover whether he is or is not playing an old, threadbare star on me for a new one?

We are told that there has been no perceptible growth or decay in the star business since man began to roam around through space, in his mind, and make figures on the barn door with red chalk showing the celestial time table.

No serious accidents have occurred in the starry heavens since I began to observe and study their habits. Not a star has waxed, not a star has waned to my knowledge. Not a planet has season-cracked or shown any of the injurious effects of our rigorous climate. Not a star has ripened prematurely or fallen off the trees. The varnish on the very oldest stars I find on close and critical examination to be in splendid condition. They will all no doubt wear as long as we need them, and wink on long after we have ceased to wink back.

In 1866 there appeared suddenly in the northern crown a star of about the third magnitude and worth at least $250. It was generally conceded by astronomers that this was a brand new star that had never been used, but upon consulting Argelander’s star catalogue and price list it was found that this was not a new star at all, but an old, faded star of the ninth magnitude, with the front breadths turned wrong side out and trimmed with moonlight along the seams. After a few days of phenomenal brightness, it gently ceased to draw a salary as a star of the third magnitude, and walked home with an Uncle Tom’s Cabin company.

It is such things as this that make the life of the astronomer one of constant and discouraging toil. I have long contemplated, as I say, the advisability of retiring from this field of science and allowing others to light the northern lights, skim the milky way and do other celestial chores. I would do it myself cheerfully if my health would permit, but for years I have realized, and so has my wife, that my duties as an astronomer kept me up too much at night, and my wife is certainly right about it when she says if I insist on scanning the heavens night after night, coming home late with the cork out of my telescope and my eyes red and swollen with these exhausting night vigils, I will be cut down in my prime. So I am liable to abandon the great labor to which I had intended to devote my life, my dazzling genius and my princely income. I hope that other savants will spare me the pain of another refusal, for my mind is fully made up that unless another skimmist is at once secured, the milky way will henceforth remain unskum.


Preface  •  Directions  •  My School Days  •  Recollections of Noah Webster  •  To Her Majesty  •  Habits of a Literary Man  •  A Father’s Letter  •  Archimedes  •  Anatomy  •  Mr. Sweeney’s Cat  •  The Heyday of Life  •  They Fell  •  Second Letter to the President  •  Milling in Pompeii  •  Broncho Sam  •  How Evolution Evolves  •  Hours With Great Men  •  Concerning Coroners  •  Down East Rum  •  Railway Etiquette  •  B. Franklin, Deceased  •  Life Insurance as a Health Restorer  •  The Opium Habit  •  More Paternal Correspondence  •  Twombley’s Tale  •  On Cyclones  •  The Arabian Language  •  Verona  •  A Great Upheaval  •  The Weeping Woman  •  The Crops  •  Literary Freaks  •  A Father’s Advice to His Son  •  Eccentricity in Lunch  •  Insomnia in Domestic Animals  •  Along Lake Superior  •  I Tried Milling  •  Our Forefathers  •  Preventing a Scandal  •  About Portraits  •  The Old South  •  Knights of the Pen  •  The Wild Cow  •  Spinal Meningitis  •  Skimming the Milky Way  •  A Thrilling Experience  •  Catching a Buffalo  •  John Adams  •  Bunker Hill  •  A Lumber Camp  •  My Lecture Abroad  •  The Miner at Home  •  An Operatic Entertainment  •  Dogs and Dog Days  •  Christopher Columbus  •  Accepting the Laramie Postoffice  •  A Journalistic Tenderfoot  •  The Amateur Carpenter  •  The Average Hen  •  Woodtick William’s Story  •  In Washington  •  My Experience as an Agriculturist  •  A New Autograph Album  •  A Resign  •  My Mine  •  Mush and Melody  •  The Blase Young Man  •  History of Babylon  •  Lovely Horrors  •  The Bite of a Mad Dog  •  Arnold Winkelreid  •  Murray and the Mormons  •  About Geology  •  A Wallula Night  •  Flying Machines  •  Asking for a Pass  •  Words About Washington  •  The Board of Trade  •  Stirring Incidents at a Fire  •  The Little Barefoot Boy  •  Favored a Higher Fine  •  Man Overbored  •  Picnic Incidents  •  Nero  •  Squaw Jim  •  Squaw Jim’s Religion  •  One Kind of Fool  •  John Adams’ Diary  •  The Approaching Humorist  •  What We Eat  •  Care of House Plants  •  A Peaceable Man

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By Bill Nye
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