Eastern Wake: Opinion

Column: Meteor shower is a mystery exposed

By Johnny Whitfield

Johnny Whitfield
Johnny Whitfield ehyman@newsobserver.com

Perseid’s meteor shower made its annual appearance last week. My daughter, Pitt, and I got up about 3 a.m. Thursday and drove to a spot in rural Nash County to see the show.

The vastness of the universe is a fascinating thing.

In my daily work, I dread the times I have to go to Raleigh from my office in Zebulon because the trip takes so long. Though new roads have made the trip easier and shorter, it’s still a 20- or 25-minute trip. But then I think about how close the two towns are and I think about flights I’ve taken to Europe and how long that takes. By the time I landed I just couldn’t wait to get off that airplane.

Still, even the distance of those trips pale in comparison to the distances between interstellar objects. The moon is some 239,000 miles away from Earth. The sun, which Earth is relatively close to in solar system terms, is 93 million miles away from my house. Not too long ago, the national buzz was all about the New Horizons satellite’s pass by Pluto, some 4.7 billion miles away from Earth.

But the Perseids... By interstellar standards, those meteors are right in our back yard. The slice through Earth’s atmosphere at 50 to 75 miles above the ground.

Their proximity to our star-gazing positions on the ground, and their frequency – sometimes as many as 50 to 100 meteors in an hour – make it a show worth getting up in the middle of the night to see.

Several years ago, I took my daughters out into the country down past the Earpsboro community looking for a place with a clear view of the sky and away from the municipal lights. The show was slow that night and the air was unseasonably chilly. We saw only a few meteors before the children got impatient and tired of waiting.

Several years before that, before our children were born, my wife, Becky and I drove north out of Oxford and spent a couple hours laying on the hood of our car to watch what turned out to be an active meteor show. The meteors streaked across the sky every few minutes – frequently enough to keep us interested and staring at the sky. It was a great way to spend an evening and we both recall that moment frequently.

So many of us dream as little children of being astronauts and going up in a space ship to see the Big Blue Marble from the vantage point of space. Though astronauts are no longer the larger-than-life heroes they were in the day of John Glenn, there’s still a romantic aspect about space. It’s big. It’s vast. It’s mysterious. My window for becoming an astronaut has passed, sadly. I don’t expect I’ll ever see the Earth from space. But it’s just about as much fun to lay on the hood of a car or in a pickup truck bed and stare up at the nighttime sky and wonder what it’s like out there.

I once lived in the mountains and a friend of mine said he would not want to live on the top of a mountain. I questioned him about that because I thought that was the best place to live. He explained to me that if you live on top of the mountain, you can’t see the beauty of the mountains. But if you live in one of the valleys, surrounded on all sides by mountains of differents shapes and sizes, you could better appreciate the beauty of the area.

I suppose that same logic applies to space. It’s probably not as much fun to look down on Earth from above as it is to sit outside during a meteor shower and look up to see the real show.