I had to smile with the arrival of the January 2014 issues Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines earlier this month. The cover of the former heralded “Comet ISON’s Final Stab at Glory,” while the latter proclaimed “Comet ISON’s Final Act.” Richard Talcott’s article in Astronomy was subheaded “This cosmic visitor should remain a fine binocular object as it skims near the North Star during its retreat from the inner solar system.” Editor Robert Naeye’s piece in S&T proclaimed “Comet ISON might be putting on a gorgeous display as you read these words… or maybe not.”
Both magazines arrived in my mailbox about a week after ISON went “poof” after passing within 730,000 miles of the surface of the Sun on Thanksgiving Day.
The fact that both publications carried articles about something we already knew wasn’t going to happen by the time the issues arrived in our mailboxes serves to illustrate the challenge of monthly print magazines trying to cover breaking news. The approaches of the writers revealed a bit about the editorial bent of the magazines. I decided to take a look back at how they covered ISON over the past year.
Even though ISON was discovered in late September of 2012, the first mention of it in print didn’t come until the December issue of Astronomy, in which senior editor Michael E. Bakich wrote, “About a year from now, Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) may well become the brightest comet anyone alive has ever seen. Just how bright it will get is currently a subject of debate.”
S&T didn’t mention ISON until January 2013, when the cover proclaimed “The Comets are Coming,” and contributing editor John E. Bortle, who has been writing about comets for the magazine since 1967, wrote “whether [ISON] will become a great comet remains unclear,” and he chided the “Internet wags” (guys like me) for their poor understanding of typical comet behavior and wild speculation and hype about ISON’s potential. That same month in Astronomy Bakich again used the “anyone alive” line, and channeled Spiro Agnew and William Safire when he noted in his article that “The nattering nabobs of negativism already are downplaying expectations. I, for one, am not drinking from their half-empty glass.” One wonders if he got an advance peek at Bortle’s copy.
There wasn’t much written about ISON for the next few months, though comets LINEAR and PanSTARRS got some coverage during the late winter and early spring. S&T stepped in with a little downward adjustment of expectations in April. Naeye wrote that predictions of ISON’s spectacular potential were premature. “With our decades of experience covering such matters, we know better at S&T.” The issue also included an article looking back at the much-hyped Comet Kohoutek, the mid-1970s “dud of the century.” After that S&T would not spill one drop of ink on ISON until August.
Astronomy was more active in its coverage. In June David J. Eicher wrote about comets in his “From the Editor” column, using the “anyone alive” line from Bakich but also stressing how unpredictable comets can be. Eicher write about ISON and other comets in his column in six of the next eight issues, breaking only to note the magazine’s 40th anniversary and its website re-design. His “Snapshot” column at the head of each issue’s news section was about comets in four of those eight months.
There wasn’t much else in either of the magazines for the rest of the summer. Astronomy ran a monthly note in the Comet Search section of its observing guide each month beginning in July, and S&T added ISON notes to its observing section starting in August.
The pace picked up a bit in September. Bortle wrote in S&T that “Some have been billing ISON as ‘the comet of the century.’ Is there a chance this won’t be an embarrassment?” Richard Talcott’s article in Astronomy that month also used a question mark on “comet of the century,” though the subhead noted ISON was “still two months from glory.”
In October S&T was dead silent on ISON, while Astronomy kicked it into gear. Talcott wrote a four-page article about viewing ISON during its approach, and Joseph Marcus wrote six heavily illustrated pages about “What Makes a Great Comet?”
Sky & Telescope showed more enthusiasm in November. Naeye wrote about ISON but continued to warn “Anybody who tries to give you definitive brightness predictions months in advance is either playing the hype game or doesn’t understand the unpredictable nature of comets.” The magazine also ran an eight-page article about great comets, written by Joe Rao, and some detailed observing charts and instructions. Astronomy went all-in, with a November cover story—”Comet ISON Blazes Into Glory”—and other features on the science of comets, superstition about comets, the anatomy of a comet, and a history of bright comets.
December was the month in which having to write about the news before it happened really became a pinch. Talcott’s story in Astronomy carried the sub-head “After a harrowing pass by the Sun late last month, this cosmic interloper should remain a grand sight throughout these long December nights.” S&T made ISON its December cover story, with articles by Bortle, who kept with his story line about the unpredictability of the matter, and others writing about comet science, viewing guides, and tips for taking images of comets. Both magazines had photo contests up and going.
Finally, January and the let-down. We learned just after Thanksgiving that ISON had disintegrated while skimming the Sun, before our January magazines hit the mailbox the first week of December. The final act was over before the curtain even came up.
The different approaches the two publications took to their ISON coverage are interesting. In one sense Sky & Telescope was “right.” It warned from the start that comets are unpredictable and that we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much. Astronomy made that warning, too, though it generally took a more hopeful approach and devoted far more space to ISON than did S&T, using the opportunity to write more about comets in general.
By this time you may be asking how Seattle Astronomy covered ISON. The answer is that we didn’t, making just one mention in a post back in May about the possibility of using ISON as a way to get people interested in astronomy. We passed along breaking ISON news and speculation on Facebook and Twitter.
The saving grace for the monthly magazines is that they, too can use their websites and social media to cover breaking news that is impossible to catch in print versions that go to press more than a month ahead of their mail dates. They have to write something, but it’s a particular challenge to deal with such unpredictable critters as comets.
Some amateur observers got a peek at ISON, and scientists made many observations and learned a lot more about comets, so in that sense it wasn’t a “dud.” But unfortunately ISON didn’t come close to becoming the spectacle we’d hoped for when its sungrazing nature was first recognized more than a year ago. We’re still waiting for the comet of the century.