Meteor Musings

Everyone responds to tragedies like the recent horror in Connecticut in a different way, each of us seeking comfort where we can find it. There is no real sense to be made of the evil that slaughters six and seven year old children. Solace is hard to come by.

In recent years, I have come to find at least some comfort under a quiet and clear night sky. It isn’t that the stars themselves are comforting me—they are after all indifferent to humans and to human destinies. It isn’t entirely because they seem timeless, although that is part of it. They aren’t really eternal. They too will die and pass from the scene, but when considered next to the puny lifespans of humans measured in decades, they might as well be eternal. No, it is some combination of that calm indifference and what-amounts-to immortality that is strangely reassuring.

The night before the events in Newtown, I put on some warm clothes at 3:30 a.m. and stepped outside to look for some Geminid meteors. A pleasant stream of consciousness accompanied the vigil, everything from gratitude for the warm gloves my wife had bought for me when I first began spending long nights at the Belk Observatory to idle wondering if Betelgeuse was close enough to do damage to the Earth when it eventually goes supernova (it isn’t). The meteors I saw were bright with short trails, all rather close to the radiant (the area in the sky from which they appear to originate) and I began picturing the geometry that led to that. In the early morning, the Earth is running into the bits of cosmic debris that cause meteors. Before midnight, that debris has to catch up to the Earth.

It seemed to me, or at least to my sleep-dulled mind, that head-on collisions might lead to shorter trails. The meteors were coming at a satisfying pace. At one point I saw three within five minutes of each other, and I decided to go in once I had hit double digits. A streak at the edge of my vision: meteor or not? Nah—don’t count it. The tenth meteor left a bright and silent trace against the void, and I went in. Ten (maybe eleven) in thirty minutes—nothing spectacular but quite nice just the same.

The same stars that I saw that night shone down on Galileo and Kepler, on Julius Caesar and Jesus, on Socrates and Aristotle, on Neanderthals huddled around a campfire. With only a few differences that you would have to search for, the same stars shone down on dinosaurs the night before a meteor ended their dominance among Earth’s large land animals and allowed mammals, and eventually humans, to emerge. I know that many people find that contemplation of the vastness of time and space makes them feel quite insignificant. It doesn’t do that for me. It makes me feel very humble, yes. But I marvel at the fact that the three or so pounds of organic stuff between my ears can take this in, can realize that what I am seeing is not small lights a few miles above me, but vast nuclear-fueled fires at unimaginable distances, that I can run through some of those nuclear reactions in my head, can think about what it is that will trigger Betelgeuse’s eventual and inevitable demise, can understand and appreciate what countless other similar bits of organic stuff have learned about the universe. And yes, I think about those ancients who gazed up at these lights in wonder, and I am grateful for the understanding we have gained. How much more marvelous is this reality than any imagined cosmos!

The evil in our world is very real. But there is solace to be had in contemplation of things that are far beyond us, and will outlive us by eons. From the introduction to the much-loved Burnham’s Celestial Handbook: “Contemporary civilization, whatever its advantages and achievements, is characterized by many features which are, to put it very mildly, disquieting; to turn from this increasingly artificial and strangely alien world is to escape from unreality; to return to the timeless world of the mountains, the sea, the forest, and the stars is to return to sanity and truth.”

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Neal Sumerlin

Neal Sumerlin, retired Professor of Chemistry and founding Director of the Belk Observatory at Lynchburg College