To many people, the news of the Heaven's Gate mass suicide must seem utterly senseless. To Alan Hale, codiscoverer of the Hale-Bopp Comet, it follows an all-too-familiar pattern.
"I was not surprised by this," Hale tells me by E-mail. He recalls talking with a fellow astronomer a few months before the Heaven's Gate incident: "We both agreed that there would be suicides over this comet. . . . It would have been nice to have been wrong, but with the ignorance and superstition that is so rampant in our society today, nothing like [Heaven's Gate] could have surprised me."
But most of us were pretty taken aback when it was discovered that the group was keenly interested in Hale-Bopp's approach, and that the cultists killed themselves-shed their temporal "containers," as it were-to hitch a ride on the gaseous interplanetary dust ball. "Its arrival is joyously very significant to us at 'Heaven's Gate,'" read the group's Web site, accessible through The Sun's Web page. Hale-Bopp was the "marker" they were looking for, signaling the arrival of a spacecraft that would take them back from whence they'd come. (The site indicates the cultists weren't convinced the spaceship was driving alongside the comet, but they viewed Hale-Bopp as a harbinger nonetheless.) "We are happily prepared to leave 'this world,'" the site reads, and head toward the higher plane from which they descended.
Hale's heard it before. In the March 1997 issue of Skeptical Inquirer , he wrote that in the nearly two years since he and Thomas Bopp discovered the comet, he's encountered numerous claims that it harbors some kind of alien "mother ship" or is "under intelligent control." Hale-Bopp is a sign of the end of civilization, many think, citing Biblical theories (see Revelation 8:10 and 11), the coming millennium, Nostradamus' prophecies, or various Native American legends.
Perhaps the most persistent rumor-and, probably, the one that made Hale-Bopp such a significant part of Heaven's Gate cofounder Marshall Applewhite's cosmology-is Chuck Shramek's "discovery" of a second object behind the comet. Last fall Shramek, an amateur astronomer from Houston, thought he saw something in the comet's wake that was "big and bright and looked like the planet Saturn," according to his Web site, the Great Comet of 1997, What the Hale Is Going On???.
Shramek wondered, What could it be? He had heard other reports of people observing objects surrounding Hale-Bopp. He faxed the question to Art Bell's nationally syndicated radio show, which is dedicated to paranormal events. Bell invited him on the show along with an Emory University professor, Courtney Brown, who Shramek says claimed on the air that, using her psychic powers, she saw that the mysterious object was a giant spaceship filled with aliens.
Soon after the broadcast, Hale started getting calls from the press asking about the "mysterious spacecraft." He and others investigated Shramek's photos and concluded that the mysterious object was a star. He posted the less-than-exciting results on the Hale-Bopp home page.
That simple post drew a surprisingly vitriolic response. The Hale-Bopp site received hundreds of pieces of hate E-mail, many inspired by Bell's subsequent shows on the topic. Many of these E-mails accused Hale of participating in some sort of conspiracy, even of being a "traitor to the Earth." Some are almost surreally comic: "As a scientific [sic] and a researcher I am ashame [sic] on the way you have teated [sic] this man in Houton [sic]. From the Inquisition to now I do not see any progres [sic] on your little mind." Charged another, "Your hypocricy [sic] is beneath contempt."
Hale found the responses amusing, but he was unnerved by what he calls a "glaring example of scientific illiteracy."
This is nothing new. Throughout recorded history, people have been superstitious about comets. As The New York Times recently reported, King Louis I of France greeted the ninth century appearance of Halley's comet by building more churches, fearing it was a sign of God's anger. When that comet came by in 1910, a religious group in Oklahoma tried to sacrifice a virgin to ward off a catastrophe.
These actions are typically understood today as the behavior of ignorant people fearing what they didn't understand. But variations persist today, despite our far greater knowledge of the heavens.
True, if Hale-Bopp hadn't floated by, Heaven's Gate members would have found something else to hang their suicides on. But their choosing of the facts to fit their theories is symptomatic of the "scientific illiteracy" Hale decries, and the spaceship theory's popularity makes for a disturbing trend. As the astronomer wrote in the Skeptical Inquirer, "The numerous scientific and technological challenges that our society will be faced with during the years and decades ahead are too important . . . to be adequately . . . dealt with by a population that cannot distinguish between legitimate science and the pseudoscience."
Hale saw Heaven's Gate as only the most extreme example of this folly-and the sad outcome of such ignorance.