“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they’d live a lot differently.” This was stated by Calvin, as in Calvin and Hobbes, and he sure had it right.
August is one of my favorite months to stargaze, as it hosts the Perseids meteor shower. The Perseids meteors come from remnants of the Comet Swift-Tuttle. Like Earth, Swift-Tuttle also orbits the sun, but it takes a bit longer — 133 years to be exact. Every August, the Earth passes through the dusty remnants of Swift-Tuttle’s trail, creating meteors of up to 100 per minute. You wouldn’t think we’d be able to see a speck of dust in space from Earth, but as the debris hits Earth’s atmosphere it burns up, creating the fiery streaks we call meteors or shooting stars. While this creates a pretty sight for us to enjoy we can also be thankful that our atmosphere protects us from cosmic debris — at a rate of 2,220 miles/second, even a tiny particle would cause damage if it hit Earth’s surface.
The Perseids meteor shower gets its name because it appears to radiate from the Constellation Perseus. You can find Perseus in the north-northeast sky. Perseus looks like a crooked V, and points towards the well-known W-shaped constellation, Cassiopeia. The legend of Perseus makes a great “How I Met Your Mother” story. According to Greek mythology, Perseus killed a gorgon named Medusa, whose snake-covered head was so gruesome that one look at it would turn a person to stone. Perseus must have been a great warrior because he managed to decapitate Medusa without ever looking directly at her, but rather viewing her reflection in his shield. After his battle, Perseus took Medusa’s severed head with him, and it proved very useful on his journey back home. Cassiopeia’s daughter, Andromeda, was about to be sacrificed to a sea monster named Cetus. Perseus fell in love with Andromeda at first sight, and saved the day by holding up Medusa’s head and turning Cetus to stone. Queen Cassiopeia awarded Perseus’ valor by allowing him to marry her daughter Andromeda.
Tales like that of Perseus have been passed down for generations. Despite the changes that have taken place upon Earth, the Cosmos remains largely the same. In the year 2013, we look up at the same stars that the Ancient Greeks found to be so mesmerizing thousands of years ago. The biggest idea that stuck with me from my college astronomy class was that the Universe is actually just a huge, cosmic recycling plant. In other words, all matter is made from remnants of stars. It is easy to feel lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but I find that looking at the stars makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself. Whatever our differences, we all look up at the same sky.
Although the Perseids peaked Aug. 11-12, they were still visible through August 24. I hope everyone was able to follow Calvin’s advice and took some time to enjoy the Perseids meteor shower.
Shelley Anklan is a Camp Counselor at Keystone Science School. For more information on Keystone Science School, give us a call at (970) 468-2098 or visit www.KeystoneScienceSchool.org.