Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's time for stargazing -- and gazing inward


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel August 12, 2007)

When our kids were little, August meant more than heat, humidity and afternoon thunderstorms. It signaled the start of stargazing season -- a chance to spend family time together outside beneath the evening sky.

For a good many years, when the Perseids meteor shower was at its peak, we abandoned the couch and turned off the TV. For that one night, the trampoline became our bed; the stars, our entertainment. We piled our prone bodies upon the trampoline's taut surface and directed our eyes upward.

Who would see the first falling star? How many could we count in an hour?

With our heads supported by fluffy pillows and blankets protecting us (somewhat) from pesky mosquitoes, we scanned the star-studded sky.

"There's one!" someone would shout.

"I missed it," another would inevitably whine.

"Wow! Did you see that one go by?" a third child's voice would suddenly exclaim.

And so it continued, star after shooting star after shooting star.

On a good night, we might spot dozens of glimmering beams streaking above us in a matter of minutes. Each sighting elicited squeals of delight.

Such magic in the darkness. Such treasure for the taking.

It was a pleasure to share this ancient spectacle with very young children. But even the powerful allure of shooting stars was no match for tired eyes and annoying insects. Bug bites and sleepiness eventually overtook even the most ardent observers. One by one, we would gather up our blankets, returning inside to the comfort of our mosquito-free home.

My kids are grown up now. I can't remember the last time I went outside at night and settled down on the trampoline, my head turned upward to gaze at the stars. Without children to motivate me, there are many things -- including searching the sky for shooting stars -- that I simply don't do.

Not this year, though.

Tonight, children or no children by my side, I'm heading back to the trampoline. The Perseids meteor shower is supposed to be especially viewable this year because its period of peak activity -- on or around today -- occurs during the August new moon. A new moon means the sky will be darker than usual and a dark sky is what you want when you are looking for stars.

In the course of an hour, an observant sky watcher whose viewing location is free from excessive man-made light can expect to see about 100 shooting stars pass overhead. That's more than one star per minute, well worth suffering a mosquito bite or two.

Stargazers have been fascinated by the Perseids meteor shower for about 2,000 years. Named for the constellation Perseus out of which it radiates, the meteor shower is one of the oldest on record. The Chinese first observed it in A.D. 34.

Although we call them falling stars, meteors are not really stars at all. They are small pieces of comets that have been shed when the comets orbit the sun. The name of the one that causes the Perseids meteor shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle. Those shooting flashes of light that dot the night sky are actually tiny bits of icy, dusty debris -- some no bigger than a grain of rice -- dislodged from the comet. These displaced fragments form what astronomers call a "stream" or "cloud" of debris. Every year when the Earth passes through this celestial mist of dusty rubble, friction from the upper atmosphere causes those particles to ignite. It is their vaporization that we see overhead. Most are extinguished before reaching the Earth. Those few that do manage to find land before burning up completely are called meteorites.

No matter what you call them -- shooting stars, falling stars or meteorites -- the sighting of brilliant light flashes across a dark sky is an exhilarating experience that has fascinated people for ages.

For me, just being out in the open air looking skyward is inspirational.

And a little scary.

It puts life into perspective and triggers introspective thinking. Infinite universe versus finite beings. So many possibilities. So little time to get it right.

Tonight, when I'm outdoors looking up, I won't just be searching the sky for shooting stars. I'll also be searching inwardly for peace and harmony. I'll be trying to catch those elusive beacons of hope and understanding as they flash by. And I'll be thinking of people around the globe sharing my vision.I hope you're among them.

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