Thursday, August 12, 2010


I saw that tonight is supposed to be the best night all year to see the Perseid meteor shower. I have a confession: I've never seen a shooting star or a meteor. I was raised in the suburbs, and I guess we just didn't look up at night or something. (And there was plentiful light pollution, too.)

So tonight I looked up the "where to look" information on the net (isn't it amazing!), turned out all my lights and went outside on the deck to sit and look north/northeast. The problem is that I live on the south side of town, so looking north/northeast near the horizon means there's enough light from the city that I can't see any starts. Nonetheless, after about 10 minutes, I thought I saw something. Then I waited, and after a while more, I thought I saw another, but more easterly.

There's also lightning off to the north and east of town at various moments. I could see the sky lighten a bit in the distance, but it was too far (or blocked) and I couldn't see the lightning. And it was far enough that I couldn't hear it over the traffic noise. (Sitting outside in the evening makes me really aware of the traffic noise in my neighborhood. It's a quiet area, so that you hear noise you wouldn't notice in an actual city.)

Then I went to the front yard, and got behind a tree so that it was mostly blocking the streetlight to the north, and sat on the driveway for a while. After about half an hour, I saw what seemed more definitely to be a meteor.

But it was nothing like the pictures I was seeing on the net of multiple streaks of light. I wonder if those are really powerful lenses or long exposures or something?

Trying to figure out where to look got me thinking about the ancient folks who made up the constellations. I could never figure out the constellations as a kid. They don't look anything like anything to me. And every time I see three stars roughly in a row I think it's Orion.

I can reliably pick out the Great Dipper when I'm in a planetarium and the "guide" is showing it with a laser. Otherwise, I can't seem to do it.

I think the ancients had some good drugs to see all those things in the sky.

And then I got to thinking about why we see these meteors at the same time every year. I can sort of hold a mental image of the solar system, but I don't generally populate it with all sorts of comet dust and such in my head. I guess we're passing through a part of the solar system on our earthy route around the sun that has lots of comet dust, and when that hits the atmosphere, zing.

So, anyway, there are these meteors of comet dust, which are close, close enough to be hitting earth's atmosphere. But they seem to be coming out of a constellation that's WAY outside our solar system. Sort of mind blowing, isn't it?

And then I start thinking about the ancients and early moderns who looked at the sky and mapped out stars, and tried to figure out how the stars changed, and eventually how the earth moves relative to all the other stuff in space. And it's mind-blowingly complicated.

And most of the time, I think of the earth as unmoving. But here we are, spinning through space around a big ball of hotness. It sort of makes me dizzy.


  1. We had to drive a ways to get out of the fog, but the kids really wanted to see the meteors. So after about 20 minutes, we found clear skies and pulled off down a dark road. The kids were a little freaked out by the spookiness (I admit that I, myself, wondered if we'd driven into a Flannery O'Connor story), but we saw some meteors! However, the Boy had seen the same long-exposure shots you've seen, so he was rather underwhelmed . . .

    Still, I think they're cool.

  2. I have fond memories of watching the Perseid showers the summer term I was in college, going down to the river and laying out on the boat dock with some friends. Last night I kept sticking my head out the door to peek up but of course that sort of random observation didn't get anything.

    H.A. Rey (of Curious George fame) wrote a really engaging book about how to look at stars (The Stars: A New Way to See Them) that combines astronomy and visuals in very entertaining ways. After we spent a year in West Texas, often sitting out at night with a friend who could name everything in the sky, I resolved to get better at constellation identifying myself. I've never followed through, but I do love the Rey book.

  3. When I was very young, we lived for a couple of years in Alaska and saw "shooting stars" so often that I never thought anything of it until we moved.

    I often think about the ancients and early moderns who mapped out the stars. How did they do that? I am amazed at basically any scientific revelation that happened pre-2oth century, so maybe I am just easily impressed.

    And thanks for reminding me how space so easily blows my mind. The thing about it constantly expanding? That gets me every time.

  4. My stepmother and I once lay out on the ground on their driveway (way out in the boonies -- no light around) and you could gradually see the shooting stars. They don't look like those time lapse photos, though: you have to pick a corner of the sky and just stare at it so you can pick up movement....

  5. it's been all fog around here....

    i was also raised in the suburbs, and live in a different metro area now. it's mind-boggling to go to a rural place and just see all those stars.

  6. I got to take a camping trip to a campground way out in the wilds of New Mexico one summer and saw the meteor showers ---- yes, it is exactly like the pictures! Except they go by very fast. But we got to hear native stories about "the milk road" or Milky Way and oh my gosh, yes, it does look just like a gravel road when you can see all the stars and star dust. It is *amazing*. It really emphasizes how much light pollution exists today.

  7. I have fun with the idea of really appreciating that we're on a spinning planet when we get to Galileo in early modern history. G usually gets the same kind of treatment that Columbus used to get, as great hero who was wise enough to see what was really there when all the idiots around him just couldn't be bothered to look. So I tell my students: OK, you're Galileo, convince me that we're actually on a giant ball spinning around the sun, because it sure *looks* like we're immobile at the center of the universe where things revolve around us. The more they struggle, the more they appreciate that Galileo's ideas were not all that easy to accept.