Who doesn’t marvel at a shooting star, and wonder what it means? Some cultures believe a shooting star represents the soul of a new baby falling to earth, or that a soul has been released from purgatory and can finally ascend to heaven. Some, like seafarers, believe they can predict which way the wind will blow. Others believe that if you spot one on your right, it means good luck, but if it’s on your left, beware, because misfortune will follow you. Still others believe a shooting star means that a celebrity has gone postal.
Shooting stars, for the celebrity and celestial impaired, are meteors. What are meteors you say? I’m glad you asked, because no one should be left thinking that God is throwing rocks at us. Meteors are small bits of space debris, usually rock, but possibly also the remnants of Flat Earth Society member’s minds, that get sucked into earth’s gravitational field, then burn up and disintegrate due to the friction encountered while travelling through the gases in our atmosphere. It’s much like what happens to anyone entering a boy’s locker room unprepared. As they burn, these objects then emit a bright light which appears to ‘shoot’ across the sky.
Surprisingly, most meteors that enter the earth’s atmosphere are only the size of a pebble, or even a grain of sand. Occasionally they might get to the size of a human fist. It doesn’t take much to excite the sky. Or the sky watchers, for that matter, at least those night owls who find daylight overrated. The odds of spotting a meteor though are not good. Twenty-five million of them enter earth’s atmosphere every day, and under good conditions at the best of times (September mornings), one can perhaps see 8 – 16 per hour. This drops off progressively to a low of 2 – 4 per hour on March evenings, before increasing again. Meteor showers, which derive from comets, are the exception, and can produce up to 50 – 100 per hour, along with the belief that we’re under attack by alien invaders.
Those beliefs aren’t always wrong. About 17 times a day, on average, a meteor hits the ground, whereupon it is then dubbed a meteorite and treated like a long lost cat who has discovered the secrets of the universe. If one can be found, which is rather like looking for one sane member of QAnon. Only about ten are recovered every year. Of course, one can always find you. In 1954, an 8 ½ pound, 4.5 million year old meteorite smashed through Ann Hodges roof in Sylacauga, Alabama, making her an instant celebrity and a firm believer in hard hats and hard liquor. Giving no respect to its venerable age and origin however, she promptly used it as a doorstop.
In 1911 a meteorite killed a dog near Cairo, Egypt, lending further credence to the belief that God is a cat person. In 2013, a 7,000 ton meteorite the size of a bus exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs near Chelyabinsk, Siberia, creating a shockwave that injured 1,000 people, but no cats. NASA figures that once every 2,000 years a meteorite the size of a football field hits the earth and causes people to change religions. But neither hard hats, hard booze, nor even hard cats would have helped anyone had they been around 65 million years ago to see the Chicxulub meteorite wipe out the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all life on earth. (These are merely offered as facts so that you might also consider anti-anxiety medication while you’re watching the next meteor shower with zombie cocktail in hand, football helmet on head, and your cat in your lap.)
As might be expected when confronted by mysterious fireballs in the sky, and falling rocks that can bring out the Chicken Little in the best of us, human imaginations through the centuries have soared into the stratosphere and beyond in search of answers and superstitions. Aristotle, who apparently never subscribed to the ‘write what you know’ advice, literally wrote the book on the subject anyway, Meteorologica, in 340 B.C., in which he described shooting stars as “a dry exhalation … scattered in small parts in many directions … and the more and faster a thing moves, the more apt it is to take fire.” To be fair though, I do now stick to the speed limits.
In more recent times, meteorologists have distanced themselves from Aristotle and co-opted the term meteorology, while making it about the study of television newscast domination. This has stuck the people who actually study meteors with the awkward name meteoricists, who get no TV time. Despite the slight, meteoricists will still tell you about how most meteors occur in the region of our atmosphere called the thermosphere, between 50 and 75 miles high, and how they range in speed from 25,000 mph to 160,000 mph. But they will also tell you that meteorologists are no better than crystal ball gazers, lucky poseurs who should return the term meteorology to the scientists it belongs to. Meteorologists respond that meteoricists still don’t understand that, weather forecasting aside, one makes one’s own luck, and it starts by observing shooting stars from the correct side.