On Watching Meteorite Showers


At a quarter to five the clock alarm interrupted my now-forgotten dreams, I jumped up from bed and shook my reluctant wife from her peaceful slumber. Getting into overcoats and slipping on gloves, we stepped into the front lawn in the chilly air on that cold November night, to look at the promised Leonid showers. We surveyed the star-studded sky dominated by Orion at the Western end, spotted the brightness of Auriga and Aldebaran amidst the stellar millions. Then, like millions elsewhere, we began spotting the fiery flights of cometary remnants whose paths crossed our own earth’s, and shrieked now and again when they appeared in rapid succession.
Perhaps nothing has bound all humans, past and present, as celestial objects and phenomena. Our parents and ancestors in other times and climes saw the same sun and moon, planets and constellations. They too were provoked into wonderment and fantasies by these same entities.
Except that a blessed few of our age have a better grasp of what these really are.
In our own times those who have even a modest scientific awakening look at comets as interesting specks in the remote beyond, and the tailed faint streaks in the sky don’t strike terror in our hearts any more. We observe an eclipse without invoking the benign spirits to overcome the devouring demon. We stare at the aurora without reverting to the worship mode with prayerful pleas for personal protection. We may observe meteorites without imagining it is Diana who is descending from Jupiter.
Meteors may seem to be free fireworks in the sky, and meteorites are more than extra-terrestrial tidbits. These utterly random intruders impress us as shooting stars, and if large enough, they also provide us with materials to explore the nature of out-of-reach matter. When they are too large, they could disrupt and modify the course of biological history, locally or globally.
The spectacular meteor showers we periodically see are from the debris of comets that stray into our atmosphere. They are not unlike a spurt of smoke from the exhaust of a polluting truck, and become so bright and fiery only because of heating by friction.
We have records of major showers dating back to October 902, but it was only in 1867 that the correlation between a comet’s orbit (Tempel’s comet) and meteoric showers was first recognized. The one that caught our attention early today were from the remnants of a comet named Swift-Tuttle.
I don’t know how many or how few of the millions who witnessed this celestial spectacle thought of the mathematical and theoretical framework which enables astronomers to predict with precision when and where such events may be seen. More people subsidize financially and intellectually the mumble-jumble of astrologers who draw their wisdom from their 3000+ year old science than they do modern astronomy. We remember the generals who won major wars, but how many have even heard of David Asher and Esko Lyytinen, who calculated with uncanny precision that the dust trail the comet in our atmosphere would intrude into our atmosphere for quick decimation at 2:08 Universal Time on November 18, 2001?
We often look upon science as a source of power, as an instrument for useful gadgets, and as a root cause of rain forest depletion, but seldom as a torch of rational knowledge, as a revealer of the secrets of the universe, and as an eraser of superstitions. Yet, more than anything else, these are the major roles of science. And unless these roles are recognized we are likely to linger in (or revert to) the dark age beliefs about the nature and destiny of the universe.

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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