April 24, 2024

Before They Were Perseids, We Had Weird Explanations For Meteor Showers

The most famous annual meteor shower is currently underway and building towards a peak on August 12 – 13. In 2023, sky watchers will plan countless nights around the night sky display of the Perseid meteor, but it wasn’t so long ago that we thought such shooting stars were literally stars falling from the sky, among other ancient explanations.

The Perseids are just one of many such bursts of shooting star activity on the calendar. Although meteors weren’t paying much attention to astronomers until the 19th century, people have been noticing the phenomenon for thousands of years.

In fact, Catholics knew the Perseids as “tears Saint Lawrence” for centuries. The saint was said to have been burned alive on the 10th of August in the year 258 AD and legend has it that his tears hang in the sky until he returns to Earth every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom.

Not surprisingly, before the advent of modern science and astronomy, many peoples and cultures associated meteors with the Gods, often as signs of impending wrath or of some sort.

Ancient astronomy

Roman historians referred to “comet stars” in the sky in August, 30 BC. as something connected with the recent death of Cleopatra; it is correct to guess that this vision was ancient Perseids.

Observers in Japan, Korea and China also documented the lights and trails in the sky hundreds of years ago, and there appears to be one Chinese record. note the Perseids in 36 AD.

Although it may not have been until recently in scientific history that we understood exactly what we were seeing, the ancients knew that they were seeing something significant in the sky.

“While the myths and legends might lead one to think that ancient civilizations had little scientific understanding of what meteors, comets and asteroids might be, this could not be further from the truth,” writes Eve MacDonald, a lecturer in ancient history. Conversation in 2018.

MORE FROM FORBESThe Perseid Meteor Shower has begun: When is the Best Time to See It?

Even if the ancient observers did not have the same understanding of what materials and mechanisms exactly created the phenomenon at the time, they managed to collect rich data about meteors.

What is really happening during the Perseids

that is, Earth is making its annual trip through a cloud of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. Small motes, pebbles and other small bits of the regular cosmic visitor collide with our upper atmosphere, burn up and create a spectacle in the process.

Solving the Celestial Mystery

By the time scientists were becoming confident of this explanation in the 1800s, they began to break away from other views of the day that were at least a little more empirical than the legends of the past.

At the time, meteors were attributed to something like lightning or some kind of nocturnal rainbow, or perhaps pieces of a volcanic eruption falling back to Earth. Not a bad guess.

Then an American explorer named Edward Claudius Herrick hit upon an idea and published it in an article in Silliman’s American Journal of Science and Arts in 1838.

“It’s not impossible,” Herrick wrote“that these meteor showers are derived from cloudy or cometary bodies which the earth enters at stated times.”

Bingo. Do not tear the saints signs from the Gods anymore.

But the comet that gave us the Perseids is still the stuff of legend: it’s worth looking closely at the list of space rocks, because it could spell our demise if it ever collides with Earth.

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