The Perseids Meteor Shower

Joy of the Day 19/365: the Perseids meteor shower

They say that when there's a big meteor shower, like the one that occurred these past two days, what we are seeing is the debris from our planet's movement through a trail of debris left behind by a comet. But that debris is not from the comet's most recent passage by us, but rather the previous time it came by. Why this is, I don't yet know. But it means that this Thursday, me and my friend Kenneth were lying in a field outside Springfield, IL, watching the debris that the Comet Swift-Tuttle left floating above the Earth during the middle of the American Civil War (1862) hit our atmosphere and burn up.

It was bad-ass.

Springfield: I realized that this was happening this week, and then checked out a map of light pollution in Illinois, which turned out to be pretty much one giant red zone, mostly centered on the exact place I live (Chicago). But Springfield, that half-shuttered, one-horse town, is relatively dark -- especially if you drive out of the city towards an unusually rural part of the state. I was overdue for a visit to my buddy Ken, who works for the Illinois legislature. So I got a train down, and late in the evening he and headed out on his motorcycle through nearly-nowhere Springfield to its really-nowhere outskirts, and found a field where we could see the whole sky. Meteors: redeeming the parts of Illinois Chicagoans like to pretend don't even exist.

The newspaper headline lies -- the show didn't "rival the stars in the sky," at least not where we were. In an hour of watching, we saw maybe 20 to 30 meteors, mostly in randomly scattered ones and twos that lasted only a few seconds each. In one thrilling moment, four bright ones streaked across the center of the sky in one minute -- giving just a taste of what a truly dazzling, 200 meteors-per-hour shower might be like.

Nonetheless, it was one of the best things that happened this year. When you get away from city lights and let your eyes adjust to the night sky, there is a surprising rich display of what you've been missing. An endless number of stars emerge from the sky's dark background. Constellations that have been in the mystifying if-you-say-so category begin to make sense. And there is a sense of something classical, and even eternal -- not only because you are watching debris from 1862 (or from the comet's previous passes, in 1479 and 1079), but because all this light has traveled across multiple light-years to reach our eyeballs, and because the business of naked-eye astronomy that you are practicing in your own amateur, uninformed way last left its mark on science in the 16th century, the time of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

Also, it feels mysterious: why is it that we are only seeing the comet's debris from its next-to-last visit, and not its latest one? What the hell does the gravitational pull of Jupiter have to do with it? There is so much about science that the average person (like me) doesn't really know, and a lot of it is pretty amazing.

Plus, it makes your mind quiet to sit and look at at the whole sky for a whole hour. Even after six months living in a Buddhist temple, it's easy to say this was the best Zen thing I ever did, for real.

After Thursday's good but not great show, we were planning to go out again on Friday. But in the end, it was good we hadn't waited. That night, a drenching rain fell for hours. We ended up ordering pizza and watching movies. Nice enough, but nothing you'd remember for life.

The meteors, on the other hand: they were unbeatable.