Just a little while ago I dropped off my two boys for their first day of school. And a few hours before that I made a questionable parental decision. You may have heard that this is the week of the Perseid meteor shower.
It happens every year around this time, usually peaking out somewhere around August tenth or so as the comet Swift-Tuttle makes its way past the earth flinging rocks at us like a thoughtless driver might flick a smoldering cigarette butt out his driver side window onto the interstate. Except much cooler to witness.
That’s especially true this year because Jupiter and its mighty gravitational pull was in a location on its orbital path to come closer than usual to Swift-Tuttle’s path, which, according to the people who know about such things, nudges the comet and its wake a little closer to Earth. This, along with the deep dark of a moonless night and a stunningly clear sky over my great state of Missouri, sets the stage for a great show.
You might say the stars aligned to make this some of the most spectacular viewing of the Perseids in years, though if you do, I’m pretty sure the people who know about these things would make fun of you.
The only factor out of alignment for us was the looming first day of third and fifth grades which happened to immediately follow the peak viewing of the meteor shower. Because my third grader doesn’t care for surprises and we thought might lead us toward wisdom in this particular instance, my husband asked him before he went to bed whether hypothetically he would wish to be awakened at 3:00 in the morning to watch the meteors, if we could see them well. He answered with an emphatic no.
Smart kid. Alas, we are not as wise and so we set our alarm for three and checked it out. Where we live there is a fair amount of light pollution, but Jupiter, the moon, and the litterbug comet did not let us down. I’m sure it would have been better in the country somewhere, but for a suburban backyard meteor viewing, it was pretty amazing.
By 3:30 we made the decision to wake our fifth grader and invite him to join us, an offer he gleefully accepted. As far as questionable parental decisions go, I suppose this one wasn’t so bad. It’s not like we’re Edward Claudius Herrick’s parents who in 1827 decided their highly intelligent son shouldn’t go to college because of his weak eyes.
Instead, Herrick, the son of a Yale graduate and a descendant of one of Yale’s founders, became a clerk in a bookstore that served Yale students, because as everyone knows, reading, sorting, and cataloguing books is much easier on the eyes than say, studying them.
Then on the night of August 9, 1837, Herrick was closing up shop when, with his weak eyes, he noticed a large number of meteors in the sky. He wasn’t the first to observe the Perseids, not by thousands of years. He wasn’t even the first person to take serious note of them in the 19th century, but still, he studied and published a great deal on them, faithfully observing the shower every year for the rest of his life. His body of work on the Perseids gained the attention of Yale which eventually awarded him an honorary Master of Arts degree and appointed him to the position of college librarian, a job to which he, despite his weak eyes, was particularly well suited.
My son did wake up a little bleary-eyed this morning for his first day of fifth grade, but he also woke up excited to tell all of his friends and his new teacher (to whom I have to offer an apology and a promise not to pull him out of bed in the middle of the night again without a really good reason) about the meteor shower that his parents woke him up to see.
It was an experience I imagine he will remember for a long time, much more clearly than his first day of fifth grade, and not only because he’s tired. The experience, I think, was well worth the discomfort it will cause him today and questionable or not, I’m pretty sure I’d do again.
NOTE: A reader who evidently knows about such things recently contacted me to point out that Swift-Tuttle actually zooms by Earth only every 133 years and that in fact it’s Earth that runs into the comet’s trail of discarded cigarette butts every year in early to mid-August producing the Perseid Meteor Shower. Next I suppose he’s going to try to tell me the earth revolves around the sun.
I pass this information on to you, dear reader, because I would hate for you to embarrass yourself at a cocktail party by spouting erroneous information you read on this blog. And I want to remind you that it’s always a good idea to mention this blog at a cocktail party.