At 4 a.m. Eastern this past Thursday (August 13), the Perseid meteor shower peaked in its display of what appear to be shooting stars. Each August the earth passes through the wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which hurtles through the Milky Way leaving the combustible train of its robe in Earth’s orbit. On a clear night, amateur astronomers can behold with the naked eye roughly two flaming meteors per minute, and those who are patient may even witness a fireball or two. These are larger meteors that leave a trail of colors behind them a few seconds after their hard centers disperse into our atmosphere.
All of this is enough to persuade some dads to set their alarms for 3:50 Eastern so that they can step outside to see whether the promised spectacle is really worth waking up their 5-year-olds from a much needed dead sleep.
When I stepped outside at 3:55, all the usual suspects were waiting: Ursa Major pointing out her protege, the Little Dipper, the latter’s handle tipped with the North Star. I kept going and crossed Perseus on his way to free the radiant, chained Andromeda from the predator whale Cetus. Looking toward the zenith, I saw the queen Cassiopeia marking out the sweet spot for observing the meteor shower.
Well, I looked. I gazed. I figured I had better wait until 4:00 on the nose (knowing deep down this didn’t matter; the meteor shower is visible from late July to late August). The trouble was our city lights, street lights, and lights in our neighbors’ houses. Their combined effect: light pollution, a BP oil spill of photons obscuring the night ocean’s majesties.
After a while I saw a couple twinkles, spaced about five minutes apart. I have seen that much and more on a night without a meteor shower. I decided I wouldn’t wake my son. “Nothin’,” I said, and turned toward the house.
The instant I said it, I realized my impudence. With a word, I had dismissed the entirety of the blazing heavens that, with a word, God spoke into existence–all because I hadn’t seen the particular fireworks display I had come to expect. What a brat!
Ashamed, I turned back toward the sky and gradually found a seat of humility beneath the speckled canopy. When a third meteor broke into our sphere and immediately flamed out, I remembered what I had learned 12 hours earlier. The space debris causing the show that suburban and rural Ohioans were observing better than me do not, as many suppose, consist of gigantic space rocks tumbling earthward with all the grace of Andre the Giant. No: the nucleus of each of these shooting stars actually is no larger than a grain of sand tearing into our atmosphere at 37 miles per second. And the fireballs? Each of those particles is no bigger than a pea.
These marvels held my thoughts as I walked back upstairs toward my bedroom. At the top I paused at my son and daughter’s partially open door. I entered and closed it behind me. What darkness enveloped us three! Inside it, my young children seemed but tiny particles lost in a deep space. Yet in just a few hours, they would enter the atmosphere of a new day, and prove themselves blazing beauties: miracles of nature for parents who take time to notice.
I left them for my bedroom, kissed our smallest particle, snoozing in the bassinet, and returned to my wife, a brighter queen than Cassiopeia, and a better guide, too.
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