What does the Perseids meteor shower have to do with murder?

By Grover Koelpin No comments

Every day, Earth is bombarded by tiny meteors These small fragments of cosmic matter
burn up in our atmosphere and have lit up the night sky
for hundreds of thousands of years. When they occur in large numbers,
we might see a meteor shower These events are so spectacular
that throughout human history we have folded them into our culture and mythology The most famous of these meteor showers
is the Perseids But what do we actually know about the Perseids? Where do they come from? How can we see them? and bizarrely, what do these meteors have to do with a murder in the 1800s? Each August, if you glance up at a clear
night sky there’s a chance you’ll see a shooting star
from the Perseid meteor shower They are known as Perseids because of
where they appear to originate in the sky from the direction of the constellation
Perseus in the northern hemisphere When we think of meteors we can be forgiven for picturing those big colossal rocks that hurtle through space and crash into Earth
just like every other disaster movie but this is not the case The meteors are tiny and
it’s actually more accurate to suggest that we are hurtling through space towards them than to say that they’re hurtling through space towards us Every single Perseid shooting star has the same origin an ancient comet the darts in and out of the inner solar system every
century known as comet swift-tuttle This comet is approximately 26 kilometers across, making it comparable to the asteroid that ruined an otherwise lovely
day for the dinosaurs, when it plunged into the site of modern-day Yucatan Peninsula and wiped out around 75% of life on Earth But don’t worry this comet shows no signs of being any threat to us whatsoever Historical records of the comet date back
to at least the year 69 Before Common Era but it was officially recognized and named in 1862 when it was realized to be the same returning object It appeared in the sky as bright as Polaris the North Star and received its names from to astronomers Louis Swift and Horace Tuttle who observed it
separately in July of that year It’s absolutely massive elliptical orbit takes a hundred and thirty-three years to complete Taking it out past the dwarf
planet Pluto before soaring back towards the inner solar system, around the Sun
and back out again Estimates place Swift Tuttle’s return to
our skies in the year 2126 when it’ll be visible to the naked eye So how is this comet the origin of these shooting stars? The comet leaves a trail of debris in its wake
known as the Perseid cloud This cosmic stream is made up of
ice and dust from the comets itself but these pieces continue to follow the same path around the Sun These fragments can be as far as
a hundred miles between each piece which might seem really far apart but consider
it’s been doing this for thousands of years building up a river of debris that
Earth flies into every August Each year, when our planet is at this particular
part of its orbit around the Sun it enters the river of dust left behind by
the comet and as a result it’s bombarded by tiny meteors almost all of which burn
up in the atmosphere Tiny fragments ranging between the size of grains of
sand and marbles or small stones burn up as they streak across our sky over 80
kilometres above our heads at staggering speeds around 60 kilometres per second and from shooting stars for the
fortunate spectator to spot The peak of the Perseids occur annually
between the 9th and 14th of august On average around 60 meteors per hour can be seen A rate of about one per minute Although this number can differ depending on how much debris Earth happens to pass through and whether or not a bright moon is illuminating the sky For thousands of years, people have looked up and noticed this phenomenon It’s so spectacular that it’s no wonder
it’s made its way into our culture and even into our myths and religions Some Catholics call the Perseids
themselves the tears of Saint Laurent’s since his feast day takes place
so close to the peak of the shower It said that the meteors are his tears shed over being martyred and rather
grimly also represent the sparks which ignited the fires in which he was burned to death Famed Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli
also likened the Perseids to tears His father was brutally murdered on
August 10th 1867 coincidentally the feast day of Saint Lawrence The devastated Pascoli wrote a poem titled August 10th in which he addresses the saint and
implies that the sky itself is crying referring directly to the
Perseids due to the evil of humankind Translated from the original Italian,
it reads: “St. Lawrence, I know why so many stars burn and fall through the calm air why such great weeping sparkles in the concave sky” So if you want to see this
natural astronomical wonder for yourself what’s the best way? Will you need any fancy equipment? Not necessarily! You’re in with a better chance if you happen to be in the northern hemisphere during August but the main things you need to
hope for are dark cloudless skies For the more adventurous, there are websites that will tell you the places that are less affected by light pollution where you’ll
stand the best chance of witnessing the event And keep an eye on weather maps
for areas with less cloud coverage If you’re lucky you might spot a few every
minute and you’ll join the ranks the fortunate stargazers across the ages who
have been inspired and awestruck by the dusty remnants of that ancient comet burning overhead

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