Thoughts & Insights

The Night of Falling Stars

On the evening of 11 August 2004 I had a phone call. It was from someone who had heard of OUBEYs death in a car crash the week before and who was ringing me to express his sorrow.

But it was no coincidence that he had chosen this particular evening to call because this was the night when the skies were expected to erupt in a magic burst of cosmic activity. Thousands of shooting stars would fall, he told me, the whole night through, far more than on any other night of the year. And this is exactly what happened. I stood for a long while in the dark outside gazing spellbound into the endless depths of our universe, marveling at the exuberant shower of streaking, shooting, sparkling meteorites. I thought of Einstein’s Tears and OUBYs Stars and was glad that this unexpected phone call had given me the opportunity to experience such a magnificent nocturnal display.

Ever since then on August 11 – if the night sky is not obscured by clouds – I go out and watch this shower of meteorites. It’s a spectacle that returns regularly each year when the orbit of the earth around our own star, the sun, crosses the zone that intersects with the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle.

This comet carries a huge river of stone and dust in its tail. Thousands of tail particles, mainly millimeter-small tiny fragments of rock, hit the earth’s atmosphere at incredible speeds of 60 km per second or 216,000 km an hour – the kind of speed you’d need to reach the moon in just two hours. Heated by the friction of the atmosphere, they glow incandescent and vaporize in a belt 80 to 300 kilometers above the surface of the earth from where we can watch the shower of falling meteorites.

Isn’t it amazing that the sight of pure cosmic rock entering the earth’s atmosphere and being turned as though by a magic hand into dazzling bursts of fireworks is one that never fails to move us and uplift our soul?