Open Space: Tears of Saint Lawrence 

What history has to say about the Perseids meteor shower

Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of libraries and librarians, began his saintly career as a third-century deacon responsible for compiling many of the records and archives of the early church. Fittingly, librarians traditionally celebrate his feast day, August 10, with cold cuts to honor the gruesome manner by which he was martyred along with six other deacons and Pope Sixtus II on or around that same date in 258.

Apprehended by the soldiers of the Roman emperor Valerian, Lawrence was ordered to use his records to produce a list of wealthy Christians whose hoarded treasures could be confiscated by the state. What Lawrence did instead was gather up a cohort of diseased, orphaned, crippled and mendicant Christians and present them to Valerian at the imperial palace, exhorting “These are the treasures of the church!”

For his impudence, Lawrence was roasted alive on a grill. Because the day of his death coincides with the Perseids, an annual meteor shower that can be observed across most of the northern latitudes, in parts of Italy and elsewhere in the Catholic world, the streaks of light that can often be seen fleeting across the sky in the hundreds per hour are sometimes referred to as the “Tears of Saint Lawrence.”

All cultures and mythologies have stories for explaining shooting stars. For the ancient Sumerians, the flashing arcs were the weapons of their sky god, Anu. The aboriginal Australians associated meteorites with the mischief of the trickster Namorodo, creatures of skin and bone joined with sinew whose arsenal of sorcerer’s tricks also accounted for numerous other worrisome phenomena. In Arab lore, shooting stars were bolts fired by angels at the djinn, or genies (you really can’t help but think of Barbara Eden in full harem regalia!), who were forever climbing up the constellations to peek into heaven.

The Greek thinker Aristotle first named the fiery streaks “meteors” under the assumption that they had their origins somewhere on Earth or in its atmosphere, much like lightning or rainbows. He suggested that the displays were caused by patches of gas rising from Earth and igniting in the lowest of the celestial spheres surrounding it; although this theory was later disproved, scientists continued to use the root word first put forth by Aristotle to name the two stages of a meteor’s life: meteoroid and meteorite. More about them in a minute.

Scientists continued to suggest atmospheric origins for shooting stars even into the twentieth century, among them the notion that they were the result of volcanic debris blown skyward by the force of old eruptions and finally plummeting back into the lower atmosphere. Great leaps forward in our current understanding of meteor science, however, had been made as early as 1837, when an unsuccessful businessman named Edward Herrick began systematically compiling observational data from historical sources and the accounts of others who had seen spectacular displays of shooting stars on the same days in previous years.

At the time, the small community of American astronomers was still fevered by an incredible storm of meteors that showered the skies four years earlier, in 1833. On the night of November 12-13, scientists and commoners alike had seen over a thousand shooting stars per minute streaking out of the constellation Leo, and subsequent research into historical records had produced evidence of similar storms in the past. The bookish Herrick, a partner in a New Haven bookstore teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, was intrigued to look up late one August night in 1837 and see a surprising number of meteors shooting across the sky. Corroborating his own observations with those of others who had stayed up later to watch the surprise shower, Herrick hit the stacks as scientists had done four years earlier and turned up several historical accounts of meteor showers in August, one of them dating as far back as 1029. Among his conclusions, the amateur astronomer also suggested a starting point in the night sky, or radiant, for the August showers.

Herrick was one of several astronomers working independently on the August meteors, and meteors in general, and was dismayed to discover, also in 1837, that a Belgian scientist was poised to reap the rewards for many of the same findings, albeit based on data collected largely from observations made in the previous three years. The competition only drove him to work harder, however, and in 1839 he declared the radiant of the now-certifiable annual shower to be the constellation Perseus.

Perseus, one of the 48 classical constellations, is named for the Greek hero who slew the hideous Medusa and used the lethal gaze of her severed head to rescue the maiden Andromeda from a sea serpent set loose by the god Poseidon. This week, as the constellation emerges in the northeastern sky and begins its nightly chase after neighboring Andromeda and the winged horse, Pegasus, observers will hopefully see hundreds of shooting stars as the Earth begins its annual spin through cosmic real estate previously occupied by the comet Swift-Tuttle.

Like most meteor showers, the Perseids occur when the Earth passes through a trail of debris left in the orbit of a comet that has recently entered the inner solar system. Warmed by the sun and buffeted by the solar wind, the comets cast off tiny flecks of dust and rock that collide with our atmosphere at speeds approaching 130,000 miles per hour. As soon as they leave interplanetary space and enter the atmosphere, these bits of comet dandruff—most no bigger than grains of sand—cease to be meteoroids and become meteorites, disintegrating in spectacular streaks of gas.

Swift-Tuttle visits our solar system only once every 135 years (last pass: December, 1992). But as long as it continues to do so (next scheduled visit: 2126), it will leave plenty of space dander to light up the skies. Dress warmly and catch the shower’s peak between midnight and dawn on August 12 (a swollen quarter moon high overhead should do little to dissuade Perseid veterans). And pass the cold cuts for the Tears of St. Lawrence.

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