Why Comet Ison is not an epic fail

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary?

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary? Errant celebrities and under-performing footballers have suffered less criticism, uninformed speculation and unwanted exposure.

The pressure has been on for Comet Ison. After being hailed as the “comet of the century” by various media sources for months, the Huffington Post pulled no punches a few weeks ago, with a headline declaring that the disappointing comet “Fails to dazzle so far”. Even New Scientist had to grit its teeth to get through a period of waning faith: “Until last week, it looked like Ison might be a total dud,” the magazine reported. A couple of weeks ago, the Independent grudgingly acknowledged that things might be looking up: “Comet ISON, the much anticipated ‘comet of the century’, is finally beginning to live up to its reputation.”

Even NASA has been known to trash-talk comets. Remember 2011’s Comet Elenin? Following a spate of predictions that Elenin would be responsible for calamity on Earth, NASA representatives were quick to burst its celebrity bubble. After Elenin disintegrated in the sun’s heat, the “icy dirtball” broke up into a “trail of piffling particles” making an “unexceptional swing” through the inner solar system, according to a NASA expert. It was “gone and should be forgotten”.

They might soon say the same about Ison. Yesterday the comet came within three quarters of a million miles of the sun’s surface, and was exposed to the full force of solar heating. It appeared to break up under the pressure, and the European Space Agency declared it dead. But now it has reappeared, diminished but triumphant, like an icy Obi-Wan. It’s no longer going to be the comet of the century, though.

NASA’s observing campaign for Ison distanced itself from that epithet long ago. The Comet Ison observing campaign has noted that Comet Elenin was “ridiculously over-hyped”, and were determined that their comet shouldn’t suffer the same fate. The tremendous number of observations and science data we have already recorded from Ison means that, even with the fizzled-out hopes, labelling it an epic fail is “particularly harsh” according to the NASA campaign’s site. Scientists only discovered ISON last September, and have scrambled to assemble missions that will photograph and analyse it. Scientists want to study the comet for clues to the conditions in the Oort cloud, a sphere of icy rocks in the outer regions of the solar system. This is where most of the comets we see are thought to originate.

Ison’s final indignity will come thanks to the many scientific instruments in space; there is no danger of the comet escaping unpapped. This week its fate will be caught by no fewer than eight space-based cameras. Out there, no one can hear you scream, but everyone can see you burn bright - or fall apart.

Another celebrity, comet Hale-Bopp appears in the sky over Merrit Island, Florida in 1997. Photo:Getty.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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“Nudges were not for flirting”: growing up on MSN Messenger

New Statesman staff discuss the hundreds of hours they spent on the instant messaging site – and why it was eventually time to move on. 

With us are princess_in_waiting (who usually goes by Barbara Speed, tech and digital culture writer), iwalkalonelyroad (Stephen Bush, special correspondent), cazzie_alice1988 (Caroline Crampton, web editor), and insanelycheerful (Anna Leszkiewicz, pop culture writer).

We've reluctantly decided not to use our preferred MSN colours and fonts in the following conversation. You're welcome. 

Let’s talk about usernames. Why were they so embarrassing? What was their purpose?

insanelycheerful: This was the email I signed up with, which my best friend chose for me. I suppose I wanted it to convey the fact that I was upbeat to the point of mental illness, which feels starkly opposed to my current self. As I remember it, a lot of my peers had a similarly flippant approach to mental health at the time with usernames like “xXJustALittleBitMentalXx”.

iwalkalonelyroad: I used quotes from song lyrics – mainly by Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Avril Lavigne, Evanesence...my god, I had terrible music taste as a teenager. I also used my name and a dash and the words "A Wide Eyed Wanderer" because I used to write fanfic under that name.

insanelycheerful: Yeah, it was the done thing to have a song lyric – I can’t remember doing it myself, but I remember a boy I had a crush on had the first line of Kanye’s "Homecoming" as his. I had no idea what it was but googled it and started a conversation with him by sending him the next line, like, “Yeah, I totally get and enjoy this song too, fellow human. *sunglasses emoji*​

princess-in-waiting: Mine was also my hotmail, and I really have no idea why. I didn't particularly like princesses.

cazzie_alice1988: Mine was a nickname nobody ever called me (but I secretly wished they would) combined with my middle name and the year I was born.

What about your special font and font colour?

princess-in-waiting: I favoured purple, a colour I now hate.

cazzie_alice1988: Always green. And I liked "classy" fonts like Garamond. What a combination.

iwalkalonelyroad: I liked Garamond too! I went through phases with fonts but changing the colour was definitely a girl-only thing at school. But mainly I used things like High Tower Text or Garamond, before I got obsessed with Penguin Classics and Gill Sans.

cazzie_alice1988: I can actually trace my interest in how the internet works back to changing the font on MSN... I got really into making custom greens with hex codes, which lead to me first learning HTML.

iwalkalonelyroad: Were you one of those people with a bespoke MySpace?

cazzie_alice1988: YES. Sometimes I would get the width of the boxes wrong and it would look like The End of Times had come.

princess-in-waiting: Wow, I never did anything that useful. My only "skill" was the sheer number of chats I'd have open at once.

cazzie_alice1988: I am so jealous. Our family PC could only handle about three at a time. What was your record?

princess-in-waiting: Eight? Including group ones, but then obviously with individual chats with each person outside it discussing the non-conversation in the group chat.

Set the scene. Where was the computer you used? When would you go online? 

cazzie_alice1988: Ours was in what we called the study, which was like the end of the hall with a desk and a book shelf. It didn't have a door, just an archway. I used to minimise windows anytime anyone walked past

princess-in-waiting: Mine faced directly onto our kitchen/dining room for a while, so I think I went for little gnarled fonts so conversations couldn't be read over my shoulder… I would go on for 1-2 hours a night if not more, which must have been infuriating for everyone else in the house.

insanelycheerful: I started using my mum’s computer, which was in her office downstairs (she worked from home). But shortly after I got a computer in my own room, for “homework”. When I had my own computer I think I was on from the second I got home from school until the second I went to bed, with a short break for dinner in the middle. The banality of the conversations were stunning. I would mostly just talk to my best friend and narrate the absolute minutia of whatever else I was doing at the time. Like, drinking a squash.

iwalkalonelyroad: By that time my mum was working as a vicar so we had this huuuge house with a study where the computer was, which meant it was very private, and my mum has always been very hippy-dippy about privacy so would always knock, but I was liable to get kicked off if she needed to write a sermon/plan a funeral/have a confidential vicar meeting.

cazzie_alice1988: Same - I remember having to disconnect for ten minutes at a time so my parents could make phone calls. So annoying - the boy I liked might get bored and go and do something else! Muuuuum! Etc.

iwalkalonelyroad: Heh, so what I regard as the MSN era happily coincided with the diocese agreeing to pay for broadband so we didn't have any of that "Get off the internet, I'm waiting for a phone call"  - thankfully, because the phone was always ringing off with calls from church people.

princess-in-waiting: How The Church Gave Me My Social Life: The Stephen Bush Story. I definitely think it was a precursor to WhatsApp/Facebook culture, in that things would happen at school which no one would really discuss, then we'd all race for the family computer when we got home to dissect everything

cazzie_alice1988: Totally: I also had a lot of friends who didn't go to the same school as me, who I only saw in lunchtimes or on MSN.

Let's talk a bit about etiquette. In what conditions would you use a nudge? And would you do that awful thing of appearing offline and only talking to your faves from behind a ghostly grey avatar?

cazzie_alice1988: Totally yes to the latter. I almost never went fully public.

iwalkalonelyroad: Everyone had that one friend who no-one wanted to talk to who you would all immediately appear offline to. And occasionally something big would happen on one chat and you'd appear offline so you could talk about how best to put your moves on. Nudges were for two things. When someone was being rubbish about replying to a plan for the weekend, and for flirting.

cazzie_alice1988: Nooooo, nudges were not for flirting! I think I used to do them to my friends, but never anyone I fancied. "COME BACK HERE PLATONIC FRIEND, YOU DIDN'T SAY WHAT TIME WE'RE MEETING." 

What about arguing? Flirting? 

iwalkalonelyroad: Never really had a big argument, although did have a very tense conversation with a friend after it came out we had been catfishing him for the best part of a term. It got deep and meaningful. A lot of song lyrics in usernames that day.

cazzie_alice1988: I don't remember ever having a proper argument either. It was mostly very tense and passive aggressive, always dancing around the subject but never really tackling it. Just as I'd never say "I fancy you, shall we go out sometime", I'd never have said "I'm really upset with what you did". Nothing makes me happier than knowing time is taking me further away from the terrifying era of "[yourcrush] is typing a message".

princess-in-waiting: I’m not sure I even ever did what an outsider would consider flirting. A boy once told me a long story about what I thought was real life paintballing but in fact was a videogame, and asked me out at the end, and I was like “Is this what dating is like?! This is mystifying to me.”

iwalkalonelyroad: I think this is an interesting gender divide in that I think some of the conversations I look back on and go "Yeah, that laid the foundations of the few enduring friendships I have from school" were on MSN, because we could be more honest to each other. But then, boy, "flirting" (in heavy inverted commas), what a nightmare that was. I spent the best part of my time on MSN nudging back a girl on Messenger from some afterschool thing. We never talked in real life. Or indeed, on MSN.

princess-in-waiting: Looking back I really don’t know what we were talking about for all those hours, but there was something comforting in that "hey"/ "hey" / "wuu2" / "nm" / "me either" / "u do that history thing yet" / "nah" nothingy conversation.

insanelycheerful: Conversations with my best friend would swing from, “The jumper hanging from the back of my door kind of looks like a face” to “Never speak to me again you cruel and heartless monster!!!” in under 60 seconds. I spent hours locked in a circular conversation with a crush who would try and guess who my crush was (I never admitted it was him, at one point making up a fake crush on a different boy in an attempt to both throw him off the scent and force some confidence). I also remember some darker things too, like less popular girls being invited into group chats only to be terrorised for their looks by the boys who started the thread. It was a semi-anonymous, unregulated microcosm that could accelerate intimacy and aloofness with equal measure.

What would you have been doing instead, a) before MSN existed and b) if you were a teen now?

iwalkalonelyroad: Talking on landlines. Hanging around in parks. Even more hanging around in parks.

cazzie_alice1998: Probably writing it all in a diary (I used to keep one obsessively before my family got the internet, it had a padlock and everything). I also had a secondary volume I wrote in the character of Hermione Granger. My sister (who is 6 years younger than me) is all about Facebook and WhatsApp. I think the fact that my sister could be in her room on her own laptop with the door closed made my parents way more suspicious of what she was doing, and their relationships were strained as a result.

princess-in-waiting: Now I think we'd be doing the same, but over Snapchat and group WhatsApp. Though the constant availablility must sap some of the excitement.

iwalkalonelyroad: Everyone thinks that the times they live in are the end times, etc, but am glad that my mum's work meant that I was continually getting kicked off the desktop PC. It wasn't 24-7, like it would be today.

insanelycheerful: Before MSN I spent each night racking up horrific phone bills on our landline, via three hour conversations to my best friend’s house (my mum had to teach me to hang up at 59 minutes and call back to avoid extra charges). In 2016, every teenager has their phone on them all the time, so I’d assume that the main difference for teens is that the MSN-style chat has become more all-consuming, which feels utterly terrifying. School time and MSN time could never overlap when I was at school.

What about code words, acronyms, and emoticons? 

iwalkalonelyroad:"brb" was basically the all-purpose "I'm being asked to do chores, my mum's in the room, someone's called for me on the landline, the doorbell's rung", etc.

cazzie_alice1988: And brb was torture, because it could mean "my mum's called me to have dinner" or "I'm slagging you off to other people right now".

iwalkalonelyroad: Speaking of codes, a friend of mine used to seriously claim until, like, 2011, that he had invented "BTW". He claimed that one day, in conversation, he used it, and then it "started to get around".

princess-in-waiting: My favourite emoticon was always the upside down smiley face. I was delighted when it became an emoji for real.

iwalkalonelyroad: I think my favourite was probably :wink: . Lot of plausible deniability with winky-face.

When did you stop using MSN? Why? 

cazzie_alice1988: I went to university and suddenly everything was on email... 

iwalkalonelyroad: Somehow I associate the last gasp of MSN with study leave and that very long summer from the end of secondary school to us all going our separate ways. Mobiles became widespread and then Facebook happened.

cazzie_alice1988: I think there was also a sense that we knew it was a bit childish, so you had MSN friends and then new people you met as a "grown up" didn't get connected with it.

iwalkalonelyroad: Yeah, definitely. And there was also an economic aspect in that at secondary school we were all broke and stuck and each other's houses. (we had a lot of "x says y" passing on in convos) but then at sixth form we had the amazing EMA grant.

princess-in-waiting: On that note, I gtg.

cazzie_alice1988: brb.

iwalkalonelyroad: *appears offline*​

insanelycheerful: ttyl!

princess-in-waiting: *opens other window to discuss you all with each other*

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here