Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Night of Falling Stars -- Reflections on the 1833 Leonid meteor shower

1889 drawing of the 1833 Leonid meteor shower as seen by Joseph Harvey Waggoner, a minster traveling from Florida to New Orleans during the shower.

The contents of the heavens -- its constellations, comets, galaxies, planets -- have long fascinated me. When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming an astronomer and spent nights watching the cosmos unfold before me, gazing closely as it uncovered some of its secrets while I gamely hunted for others. Getting my first telescope at age ten helped the desire along, as it allowed me to focus in on the moon and her moods, the rings of Saturn, the martial planet of Mars and the whereabouts of galaxies and clusters with magical names like Andromeda (M31) and Pleiades, respectively.

Realizing early on that astronomy required a great proficiency in math (let's just say math wasn't my best subject), I abandoned astronomy for poetry, happy to realize that the switch allowed me to continue gazing at the cosmos in wonderment.

And, I still keep astronomy as a small hobby today, perusing "Astronomy" magazine monthly and tracking the movement of the planets and other celestial objects from the vantage of my boyfriend's hefty telescope. I like it when I learn new things about the universe I didn't know before. Last summer, I stumbled across Native American accounts of a great meteor shower in 1833 in which great numbers of stars fell to the earth. After more digging, I discovered that during the nocturnal hours of 12-13 November over 200,000 meteors fell to the ground, alternatively shocking and amazing its viewers. Many believed this fiery portent from the sky signaled that the end of the world, while others, like Abraham Lincoln, drew inspiration from the event to later assuage fears that the world was ending during the Civil War. He wrote:

"One night I was roused from my sleep by a rap at the door and I heard the Deacon's voice exclaiming 'Arise, Abraham,the day of judgment has come!' I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window and saw the stars falling in great showers! But looking back of them in the heavens I saw all the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now."

Sometimes as I gaze up into the sky, I find myself musing on how people of the past made sense of the mysteries of the cosmos, especially when it seemed to be in a fiery free fall. While a doctoral student at Princeton, I came across accounts of strange and increased celestial activity in the years leading to Pope Urban II's declaration of a First Crusade in 1099. Then, Europe witnessed several auroras which reddened the sky as if it was seeped in blood, sudden comets and meteor showers, lengthy solar and lunar eclipses which blackened the earth or turned red, leaving witnesses to wonder what was afoot. (Jonathan Riley-Smith's "The First Crusade and The Idea of Crusading" is especially good for more detailed information on this topic. See pages 31-35.)

I raise this because even now the universe continues to surprise and delight us -- oh, consider just how little we really know about space! It is still one of the few uncharted terrains that allows for unencumbered imaginations and vivid dreams. For me, it remains a most trusted and constant muse. Where would we be without the splendor and glory that resides all around us?!


Anonymous said...

I actually am taking an astronomy class now and it is so much more enjoyable to just look up at the stars in wonder than to actually know the science behind them. Boo science, that's what I say.

Kelly McGannon said...

hey, aly! what's up, girl? isn't astronomy the coolest? i really dig it and could pass hours upon hours gazing up into the evening sky. you must be getting excited for the planetary alignment which is set to occur in early march!

i say "bully" science!