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The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 4

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    I. Meteors and Meteor Showers


    On an average clear night one observer may see from five to eight or ten meteors an hour. But on certain nights, when our globe in its yearly path plows through any one of the various aggregations or streams of meteoric particles, 1Comparatively few of them are scattered at random through cosmic space. “Nearly all of the detectable meteors are permanent members of the solar system.” (Fletcher G. Watson, “Meteors,” Scientific American, June, 1951, p. 27.) we get a meteoric “shower”—not necessarily a spectacular display, but a noticeably increased number of “shooting stars.” 2Peter M. Millman, “The Falling of the Stars,” The Telescope, May-June, 1940, p. 59. But shower meteors, coming from a regular stream, approach us approximately parallel; hence by perspective they appear to radiate like the spokes of an umbrella from one point or small area of the heavens. For example, the Leonid meteors, which furnished the November, 1833, shower, are so called because the track of each shooting star belonging to that “shower” would, if its path were traced back far enough, appear to come from within the “sickle” of the constellation Leo. 3Sir Robert Ball, In Starry Realms, p. 238. The Leonids, moving within our own solar system, have no connection with the distant stars we call Leo. The apparent radiation from one point is merely an optical illusion similar to the apparent converging of parallel railroad rails in a vanishing point. Shower meteors show their origin from a swarm or stream by their recurrent dates, by their characteristic color and speed (slow meteors are red; the fastest bluish white), and by the position of the center (called the radiant) peculiar to that particular shower. (Reginald L. Waterfield, A Hundred Years of Astronomy, p. 475; Charles P. Olivier, Meteors, p. 8.) That is, our globe is traveling in the direction of Leo at the time when it cuts through this meteor stream.PFF4 1210.1

    Astronomers describe star showers thus: The tiny meteoric particles—actually many miles apart—move in streams or swarms, at approximately twenty-six miles a second, in elliptical paths around the sun. Whenever the earth, also moving around the sun at approximately eighteen miles a second, crosses one of these “celestial highways,” hundreds of thousands of these “little lumps of stone or iron” enter our atmosphere. Slowed down and heated by friction of the air, they become visible, many miles above the earth, as they are vaporized into a streak of light that we call a “shooting star,” or meteor—the larger the particle and the swifter the fall, of course, the brighter the trail. 4P. M. Millman, op. cit., p. 58. The word meteor-originally meaning any sort of atmospheric phenomenon, such as winds, clouds, rainbows, rain, hail, lightning, etc.—is now generally used only in its astronomical sense of a falling or shooting, star. Strictly, a meteor is a glowing particle visible to us only as it is consumed by the heat of the friction generated as it plunges from space into our denser atmosphere; but the dark, solid bit of meteoric matter—perhaps not larger than a grain of sand—traveling in space before it enters our atmosphere is technically a meteoroid, though it is permissible to use the term meteor for both. If it is too large to be entirely consumed in the fall, and reaches the ground’as a piece of stone or iron—ranging from an ounce or two to many tons—it is called a meteorite. (C. C. Wylie, Astronomy, Maps and Weathert pp. 363, 364.) A meteor as bright as Jupiter or Venus, or brighter, is called a. fireball; if it explodes it is called a bolide. (C. P. Olivier, op. cit., p. 7.)PFF4 1210.2


    Every mid-November, in its circuit around the sun, our globe crosses the vast invisible belt of the Leonids, intercepting each time a few of its billions of meteors. But no one dreamed that the more numerous “shooting stars” seen on certain autumn nights were the stragglers from an unbelievably vast throng of celestial runners that could meet our earth only about every thirty-three years. It was the famous Leonid shower of 1833 that led Olmsted of Yale and others to the conclusion that meteors come from outside the earth’s atmosphere. For they noted that, first, the radiant remained in the sickle of Leo as that constellation moved hourly toward the west, and therefore this source was not rotating with the earth; second, the date, corresponding with those of earlier notable showers (1832, 1831, 1799, and 1766), pointed to (1) a place of origin located in space about where the earth would pass in its orbit every mid-November, and (2) a possible cycle of something like thirty-three years. 5Willard J. Fisher, “The Ancient Leonids,” The Telescope, October, 1934, pp. 80-83.PFF4 1211.1


    H. A. Newton of Yale assembled a list of shooting-star falls from European and Asiatic history that fitted an astronomical cycle of about 33.25 years. In this series (from October 13, A.D. 902, to November 13, 1833) 6Ibid., pp. 82-84. Later studies in the Far East have enlarged Newton’s series. Fisher’s combined list, therefore, shows only eleven unrecorded returns of the Leonids. Some of these gaps doubtless indicate times when the Leonids were deflected by perturbations due to the gravitational pull of other planets, as happened in 1899. (Ibid., p. 86.) were several notable ones, as in 902—known as “the year of the stars”—also 1202, 1366, and 1533. 7Many were apparently only local or minor showers (“more than a hundred shooting stars,” “many shooting stars, etc.). See the list,, with quotations, in H. A. Newton, “The Original Accounts of the Displays in Former Times of the November Star-Showers,” -The American Journal of Science, May, 1864, pp. 377-389. Following are two of the seven sources quoted by Newton on the first known Leonid shower of 902. A chronicle in Egypt says: “On Wednesday, the seventh of Dhu-al-Qa’da ... so-called naming stars struck one against another violently, while being moved eastward and westward, northward and southward; and no one could look on the heavens on account of this phenomenon.” (Translated from Jirjis ibn al ‘Amid, Historia Saracenica, chap. 17, p. 181; see also a translation of this in Newton’s article.) And a Latin chronicler in Salerno, Italy, sees it as a prophetic fulfillment. “October 13, 902.... From first cockcrowing to sunrise, stars, as it were, were seen to scatter through the air very thickly, like long spears, toward almost all points of the sky, so that they terrified the minds of all beholders. For the age remembered nothing, nor did any history set forth a wonderful portent of this kind. But because it was seen not only in Italy, but in the whole world, it is rather to be believed that the meaning of the evangelist is fulfilled, saying, ‘There shall be signs in the sun and moon and stars.’” (Translated from Chronicon Salernitanum; Latin text quoted by Newton.) The return of the shower in 1866 confirmed the year period and established the identity of the Leonid showers.PFF4 1211.2


    Tempel’s comet of 1866 was found to have a recurring period of 33.18 years and an orbit agreeing with that of the Leonids, just as the path of the August Perseid meteors (from a radiant in Perseus) had been found to agree with that of Tuttle’s comet. Thence came the discovery that other meteor streams were connected with specific comets, and therefore the deduction that meteors are the scattered debris of comets. 8W. J. Fisher, op. cit., pp. 84-87. On comet-meteor relations, see also Fletcher G. Watson. Between the Planets, pp. 118, 122-137; James C. Hickey, Introducing the Universe, p. 82.PFF4 1212.1

    In 1872 and 1886, in place of the recently shattered Biela’s comet, there appeared over Europe showers of faint but very numerous Bielids 9Watson, Between the Planets, pp. 126-128. For contemporary descriptions, see Camille Flammarion, Astronomy for Amateurs, pp. 197, 198; R. Ball, op. cit., p. 245; H. A. Newton, Science, February, 1873, pp. 126-128 and 150-154, respectively; “Scientific Intelligence: IV. Astronomy,” The American Journal of Science, January, 1886, pp. 78, 79. (also named Andromedes from the radiant in Andromeda), whose narrow stream, incidentally, seems to have shifted away from us since 1899. 10Robert H. Baker, Astronomy, p. 246. And the Giacobinid meteors—not known as such before 1926—put on lesser showers, again in Europe, in connection with the passage of the Giacobini-Zinner comet in 1933 and 1946. 11For these two showers, see Watson, Between the Planets, pp. 128, 129, 132; and J. C. Hickey, op. cit., p. 82, respectively. The Giacobinid shower of 1946 was the first ever observed by radio and radar. In New England four thousand unseen meteors were counted through a heavy overcast. These new methods have detected streams of meteors that we never knew existed, because they enter our atmosphere in the daytime. (Watson, “Meteors,” Scientific American, June, 1951, pp. 25-28.)PFF4 1212.2

    These streams of traveling comets’ dust vary greatly in distribution around their orbits. The Bielid meteors seem to have been in compact bunches, and therefore the earth did not encounter them at every annual crossing. The Perseids have become scattered nearly uniformly around their orbit; hence we see them regularly, about one meteor a minute, every mid-August. The Leonids are distributed widely enough to offer a dependable yearly shower, more brilliant than the Perseids, but their main body has remained in a denser swarm that gives also a “great shower” about every thirty-three years. A few Lyrids (from a radiant in Lyra) are seen every April, but their main swarm has a yet unknown period; hence it is uncertain when, if ever, there will be a return of its notable shower of April 20, 1803. 12R. H. Baker, op. cit., p. 246: C. P. Olivier, op. cit., pp. 62-64. The 1803 Lyrid shower was reported as an “alarming” display, seen at Richmond, Virginia. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and referred to in the newspaper accounts of the great star fall of November, 1833. (For source dispatches, see the Richmond Examiner, April 30, 1803, quoting the Virginia Gazette; the New Hampshire Gazette, May 31, 1803, p. 3; see also The New York Journal of Commerce (semiweekly ed.), Nov. 27, 1833, p. 4, citing earlier accounts.)PFF4 1212.3


    From the accumulated data astronomers have arrived at a general picture of the Leonid stream of meteors. Sir Robert Ball gives us the breath-taking picture of this immense oval race course 13See R. Ball, op. cit., pp. 240, 241; also J. C. Hickey, op. cit., p. 79.—circling the sun and the earth’s orbit at one end, and swinging beyond the seventh planet of our system at the other—a race track dotted unevenly with stragglers scattered all along its circuit, but with the main body of runners bunched in a denser swarm, in a long train that sweeps past the earth’s orbit every 33 1/4 years, at each return giving us the chance of a “great” shower if its center is not swung slightly—a million miles or so—aside from the earth’s course by the delicately balanced gravitational pull of other planets. Evidently at the 1833 crossing our globe plunged through the densest part of the swarm.PFF4 1213.1

    Olivier depicts the Leonid stream as an imaginary tube in space circling the sun in an ellipse with a longer axis of about 950 million miles. The tube, with an oblique section about 4 1/2 million miles in diameter, is sparsely filled with meteors moving in nearly the same path; but in one portion—long enough to take about three years to pass a given point—there is a dense central core only 120,000 miles in diameter. Every November 13-16 the earth cuts through the tube, and we have the annual Leonid “shower” as we intercept larger or smaller numbers of the stragglers; but there can be a “great shower” only when the short, dense, interior cylinder reaches the crossing, about every thirty-three years. 14G. P. Olivier, op. cit., p. 40.PFF4 1213.2

    Since the orbits of the earth and the Leonids are not in the same plane, and since both are responding, in three dimensions, to the varying pulls of passing planets, it is not surprising that “direct hits” cannot be expected at every thirty-three-year return of the dense swarm. But when our globe does cut squarely through the core, as in 1833, it must for a few hours “forge its way across the stream” and expose its forward side to “a perfect hurricane of meteors.” 15R. Ball, op. cit., p. 244. Gorgeous then is the rain of fire, for the Leonids, approaching almost head-on, 16Watson, Between the Planets, p. 121. are among our swiftest and therefore hottest and most brilliant meteors.PFF4 1213.3

    The dense Leonid swarm, taking three years to pass the crossroads where it meets the earth, brings not only a peak shower (seen in varying intensity in different localities), but also larger numbers of November meteors annually for several years preceding and following (as in 1831-39). 17Ibid., p. 120; Denison Olmsted, Letters on Astronomy, pp. 349, 350. The local variations of intensity in the same shower indicate that the swarm has sharp gradations in density. The shifting of successive showers over different parts of the globe is explained thus: The earth returns to the Leonid crossing point at the end of each complete year, which is 365 and one-fourth days. In that extra quarter day the globe makes an extra quarter turn, so that if Europe and Asia are on the forward side of the earth as it breasts the meteor stream in one year (as in 1832), exact1y a year later (as in 1833) the Western Hemisphere will be in that leading position. (W. J. Fisher, op. cit., p. 85.)PFF4 1213.4


    The great Leonid showers have been reported from widely separated areas, but never in such magnitude and extent as in three successive returns over two thirds of a century, in 1799, 1832-1833, 1866-1868. A ship’s captain, approaching a Massachusetts port during the shower of November 13, 1833, was reported as having also seen a lesser shower in the Red Sea, near Mocha, on the same date in 1832, and the newspaper editor remarks on the coincidence of another great meteoric shower in South America on the same date in 1779 (actually November 12, 1799). 18Essex Register (Salem, Mass.), Nov. 18, 1833, p. [2]. Accounts of these showers, as well as one seen in April, 1803, were reprinted in various newspapers. 19The New York Journal of Commerce (semiweekly ed.), Nov. 27. 1833, p. 4, reprints a number of reports of the 1833 shower, with several items on “Similar Phenomena in Former Years.”PFF4 1214.1

    “The first grand phenomenon of a meteoric shower which attracted attention in modern times,” 20Thomas Milner, The Gallery of Nature, p. 138. November 12, 1799, was seen in varying degrees from Greenland to equatorial South America (except the United States), and even in Weimar, Germany. 21W. J. Fisher, op. cit., p. 83; Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels, vol. 1, pp. 351-360; Andrew Ellicott, Journal, p. 248; for reports from ship captains in the Atlantic, see the Essex Register (Salem, Mass.), Nov. 21, 1833, p. 1. Alexander von Humboldt, a German savant traveling in Venezuela, reported seeing these meteors near the horizon, throughout 60° of the eastern sky, but Andrew Ellicott, an Englishman aboard ship off the coast of Florida, saw the whole heavens illuminated with meteors “as numerous as the stars.” 22C. P. Olivier, op. cit., pp. 23, 24. This display was “not so vast, nor so sublime and brilliant as that of 1833.” 23S. P. Hildreth, letter in The American Journal of Science, July, 1834, p. 88.PFF4 1214.2

    At the next return of the major Leonid swarm, the peak shower of 1833—“the most magnificent shower on record” 24W. J. Fisher, op. cit., p. 83.—had immediate precursors. On November 13, 1831, a “great shower” of falling stars was seen on the coast of Spain, and a noticeable shower in Ohio; on November 12/13, 1832, quite a display was reported from England, Switzerland, the Tyrol, Russia, the Red Sea, India, and off Pernambuco, Brazil. 25Ibid., see also C. P. Olivier, op. cit., p. 24. On the 1832 shower see “Nachtragliche Beobachtung uber die meteorische Erscheinung in der Nacht vom 12. auf 13. November 1832,” Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 1833 (vol. 2, no. 3), pp. 447-450. The rate was not uniform—48 meteors in five minutes in England, 267 in three hours at Düsseldorf, a “real ram of fire” in Romania, “several at the same time,” at intervals, at Sudsha, Russia. A Massachusetts paper reported a great display near Mocha in the Red Sea. (Essex Register, Salem, Mass., Nov. 18, 1833, p. 2.)PFF4 1214.3


    Then, on November 12/13, 1833, appeared probably the most “extensive and magnificent” exhibition of “shooting stars” ever recorded. A historian of astronomy gives this terse and vivid description:PFF4 1214.4

    “On the night of November 12/13, 1833; a tempest of falling stars broke over the earth. North America bore the brunt of its pelting. From the Gulf of Mexico to Halifax, until daylight with some difficulty put an end to the display, the sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs.” 26Agnes M. Clerke, A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century, p. 328; cf. Portland [Maine] Evening Advertiser, Nov. 27, 1833.PFF4 1214.5

    For eyewitness descriptions we turn to contemporary scientific accounts. Said a Yale astronomer:PFF4 1215.1

    “Probably no celestial phenomenon has ever occurred in this country, since its first settlement, which was viewed with so much admiration and delight by one class of spectators, or with so much astonishment and fear by another class....PFF4 1215.2

    “To form some idea of the phenomenon, the reader may imagine a constant succession of fire balls, resembling sky rockets, radiating in all directions from a point in the heavens, a few degrees south-east of the zenith, and following the arch of the sky towards the horizon. They commenced their progress at different distances from the radiating point, but their directions were uniformly such, that the lines they described, if produced upwards, would all have met in the same part of the heavens. Around this point, or imaginary radiant, was a circular space of several degrees, within which no meteors were observed. The balls, as they travelled down the vault, usually left after them a vivid streak of light, and just before they disappeared, exploded, or suddenly resolved themselves into smoke.... The spectator was presented with meteors of various sizes and degrees of splendor: some were mere points, but others were larger and brighter than Jupiter or Venus.... The flashes of light, although less intense than lightning, were so bright as to awaken people in their beds.” 27Denison Olmsted, “Observations on the Meteors of November 13th, 1833,” The American Journal of Science, January, 1834, pp. 363-365.PFF4 1215.3

    As to the extent, it was seen—“in nearly equal splendor from the British possessions on the north to the West India islands and Mexico to the south, and from sixty-one degrees of longitude east of the American coast, quite to the Pacific Ocean on the west. Throughout this immense region the duration was nearly the same.” 28Denison Olmsted, Letters on Astronomy, p. 349.PFF4 1215.4

    In another work the same astronomer said:PFF4 1215.5

    “Perhaps ages may roll away before the world will be again surprised and delighted with a display of celestial fire-works equal to that of the morning of November 13, 1833.” 29Denison Olmsted, The Mechanism of the Heavens, p. 341.PFF4 1215.6

    Reports from various places likened the display to a veritable shower of fire, or a fall of innumerable snowflakes. 30See the Portland Evening Advertiser, Nov. 14, 25, 26, 1833 and The New York Journal of Commerce, Nov. 27, 1833, for numerous descriptions from the pages of the American press in all sections of the country: see also Denison Olmsted, “Observations on the Meteors of November 13th, 1833,” The American Journal of Science, January, 1834, p. 372. In Missouri the brilliance of these countless meteors was so great that common-sized print could be read without much difficulty. 31Olmsted, “Observations,” The American Journal of Science, January, 1834, p. 382. The whole heavens seemed in motion. None of the meteors reached the ground as meteorites (that is, solid pieces of rock or iron). But there were a number of fireballs—from the brightness of Venus to twice the apparent size of the moon—and there were many bolides, which burst like rockets, discharging balls of fire. Some of the “luminous trains” of large fireballs remained in view for several minutes— others longer. One train, seen from various cities, was described as remaining stationary for a considerable time, curling into a serpentine form, and finally drifting away as a small cloud. While the awe-struck populace gazed upon the spectacle with varying feelings, scientific observers noted and recorded the facts that were to date the birth of meteoric science from this memorable night.PFF4 1215.7


    In 1834 Leonid showers were seen in various localities in America 32A. D. Bache, “Meteoric Observations Made on and About the 13th of November, 1834,” The American Journal of Science, January, 1835, pp. 335-338; also his “Replies to a Circular,” in the issue of July, 1835, pp. 305-309. on “a greatly diminished scale,” and unusual numbers of November meteors were visible in various places until 1838 or 1839. 33W. J. Fisher, op. cit., p. 84. In 1866 the next return of the main swarm was eagerly anticipated. Three successive annual showers delighted astronomers. The first, in 1866, was seen from Ireland to Syria, and even in Cape Town. 34Ibid.; for fuller accounts see R. Ball, op. cit., pp. 232-234; London Times, Nov. 15, 1866; The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, February, 1867, pp. 82-87; Quarterly Journal of Science (London), January, 1867, pp. 87, 227; H. A. Newton, “Shooting Stars in November, 1866,” The American Journal of Science, January, 1867, pp. 87, 88; H. H. Jessup, Fifty-three Years in Syria, vol. 1, pp. 316, 317. On Cape Town see G. W. H. Maclear. “Meteoric Shower of November 13 and 14,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Jan. 11, 1867, pp. 65-74. For newspaper accounts, see the London Times and Morning Post, and the Manchester Guardian. In some places it was “a rain of fire,” although “far inferior” in numbers and brilliance to that of 1833. The 1867 display—from mid-Atlantic and western South America to mid-Pacific—would have been brilliant but for the full moon; the estimated rate at the maximum was 3,000 per hour. 35C. P. Olivier, op. cit., pp. 34, 35; H. A. Newton, “Shooting Stars on the Morning of November 14th, 1867,” The American Journal of Science, January, 1868, pp. 78-92, and his “Shooting Stars of November 14th, 1867,” in the issue of March, 1868, pp. 225-239. In 1868 a third, smaller shower was seen in America, but none of the three was at all comparable to that of 1833. 36C. P. Olivier, op. cit., p. 35; Charles A. Young, Manual of Astronomy, pp. 469-472.PFF4 1216.1


    Before the next anticipated return of the Leonids, two notable showers of another meteor family, the Andromedes, or Bielids, were seen in Europe and the Near East in 1872 and 1885. These meteors, the most numerous since the great 1833 shower, were so much paler, slower, and shorter in their paths that they could not be compared in splendor with the 1833 Leonids. 37R. Ball, op. cit., p. 245; also notices in The American Journal of Science, February, 1873, pp. 150-154, and January, 1886, pp. 78, 79.PFF4 1216.2


    In November, 1899, general expectation was high, despite the warning of two English astronomers who had calculated that planetary perturbations might have shifted the main Leonid swarm enough to miss the earth. 38G. Johnstone Stoney and A. M. W. Downing, “Perturbation of the Leonids,” abstract of a paper read before the Royal Society, March 2, 1899, cited in Mature, March 23, 1899, pp. 497,498. Disappointment was intense when the meteors failed to appear in any numbers. 39C. P. Olivier, op. cit., p. 38; R. L. Waterfield, op. cit., p. 474. Not until 1901 was there a “really fine shower” (seen from the West Indies to California) with a count, in some places, of 225 to 800 per hour. 40C. P. Olivier, op. cit., pp. 38, 39. Olivier explains that the real maximum would have conic in 1899, when the pull of other planets deflected the main stream. One astronomer remarked in 1902: “We can no longer count on the Leonids. Their glory, for scenic purposes, is departed.” 41A. Clerke, op. cit. (1902 ed.), p. 338.PFF4 1216.3

    The absence of anything like a real shower in the years preceding and following 1933 confirmed this opinion of “the lost Leonids,” 42J. C. Hickoy, op. cit., pp. 79, 80; see also Edward A. Fath, The Elements of Astronomy, pp. 225, 226. leaving only thin hopes for a “hit-or-miss” chance of better luck next time. 43R. L. Waterfield, op. cit., pp. 474, 475. Sir Harold Spencer Jones, director of the. Royal Observatory at Greenwich, is “doubtful whether these spectacular displays will occur again.” 44Sir Harold Spencer Jones, “Meteors,” Chambers’ Encyclopedia (1950 ed.), vol. 9, pp. 332, 333; see also Watson, Between the Planets, p. 121. Millman sees “no likelihood of predicting one [like that of 1833] for the future.” 45P. M. Millman. op. cit., pp. 58, 59. He gives the following comparative tabulation (ibid., p. 60): Shower Meteors per hour (one observer) Average Distance Between Particles Leonids 1833 60.000 20 miles Leonids 1866 6,000 45 -“- Leonids 1931 80 200 -“- Andromedes, or Bielids 1872 4,000 35 -“- Andromedes 1885 12,000 25 -“- Giacobinids 1933 15.000 25 -“- Perseids [avge. yr.] 50 200 -“- Avge. night [no shower] 10 400 -“- Number is not, of course, the only criterion of the magnitude of a shower. The brightness, length, and extent of the display are to be considered also. The relatively slow and pale Bielids, for example, give us a much less spectacular display than a smaller number of the swift, greenish-white Leonids with their many bolides. Whether the varying pull of the planets will someday bring the Leonid swarm back into contact with the earth, or swing into our view other great streams that we have never seen, says Baker, we cannot forecast. 46R. H. Baker, op. cit., p. 246.PFF4 1217.1

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