Historically Speaking: Awed by the Meteor Shower of the New Year’s Sky

Human beings have always marveled at displays like this weekend’s Quadrantids, but now we can understand them as well.

The Wall Street Journal

January 1, 2021

If you wish upon a star this week, you probably won’t get your heart’s desire. But if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to an outstanding display of the Quadrantids, the annual New Year’s meteor shower that rivals the Perseids in intensity and quality of fireballs. The Quadrantids are exceptionally brief, however: The peak lasts only a few hours on January 2, and a cloudy sky or full moon can ruin the entire show.

A long-exposure photograph of the Draconid meteor shower in October 2018.
PHOTO: SMITYUK YURI/TASS/ZUMA PRESS

Meteor showers happen when the Earth encounters dust and rock sloughed off by a comet as it orbits the sun. The streaks of light we see are produced by this debris burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Human beings have been aware of the phenomenon since ancient times. Some Christian archaeologists have theorized that the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah was inspired by a massive meteor strike near the Dead Sea some 3,700 years ago, which wiped out the Bronze Age city of Tall el-Hammam in modern Jordan.

Aristotle believed that comets and meteors weren’t heavenly bodies but “exhalations” from the Earth that ignited in the sky. As a result, Western astronomers took little interest in them until the rise of modern science. By contrast, the Chinese began recording meteor events as early as 687 B.C. The Mayans were also fascinated by meteor showers: Studies of hieroglyphic records suggest that important occasions, such as royal coronations, were timed to coincide with the Eta Aquarid shower in the spring.

Even before telescopes were invented, it wasn’t hard to observe comets, meteors and meteor showers. The 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry contains a depiction of Halley’s comet, which appeared in 1066. But people couldn’t see meteors for what they really were. Medieval Christians referred to the annual Perseid shower as “the tears of St. Lawrence,” believing that the burning tears of the martyred saint lit up the sky on his feast day, August 10.

Things began to change in the 19th century, as astronomers noticed that some meteor showers recurred on a fixed cycle. In November 1799, the Leonid shower was recorded by Andrew Ellicott, an American surveyor on a mission to establish the boundary between the U.S. and the Spanish territory of Florida. Ellicott was on board a ship in the Florida Keys when he observed the Leonids, writing in his journal that “the whole heavens appeared as if illuminated with skyrockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel.” When a similar spectacle lit up the skies in the eastern U.S. in 1833, astronomers realized that it was a recurrence of the same phenomenon and that the meteor storm must be linked to the orbit of a particular comet.

The origin of the Quadrantids was harder to locate. Astronomers kept looking for its parent comet until 2003, when NASA scientist Peter Jenniskens realized that they were on the wrong track: The shower is actually caused by a giant asteroid, designated 2003 EH1, which broke off from a comet 500 years ago. It is somehow fitting that a mystery of the New Year’s night sky yielded to the power of an open mind.

Historically Speaking: Before Weather Was a Science

Modern instruments made accurate forecasting possible, but humans have tried to predict the weather for thousands of years.

The Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Labor Day weekend places special demands on meteorologists, even when there’s not a hurricane like Dorian on the way. September weather is notoriously variable: In 1974, Labor Day in Iowa was a chilly 43 degrees, while the following year it was a baking 103.

Humanity has always sought ways to predict the weather. The invention of writing during the 4th millennium B.C. was an important turning point for forecasting: It allowed the ancient Egyptians to create the first weather records, using them as a guide to predict the annual flood level of the Nile. Too high meant crop failures, too low meant drought.

Some early cultures, such as the ancient Greeks and the Mayans, based their weather predictions on the movements of the stars. Others relied on atmospheric signs and natural phenomena. One of the oldest religious texts in Indian literature, the Chandogya Upanishad from the 8th century B.C., includes observations on various types of rain clouds. In China, artists during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) painted “cloud charts” on silk for use as weather guides.

These early forecasting attempts weren’t simply products of magical thinking. The ancient adage “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight,” which Jesus mentions in the gospel of Matthew, is backed by hard science: The sky appears red when a high-pressure front moves in from the west, driving the clouds away.

In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle tried to provide rational explanations for weather phenomena in his treatise Meteorologica. His use of scientific method laid the foundations for modern meteorology. The problem was that nothing could be built on Aristotle’s ideas until the invention of such tools as the thermometer (an early version was produced by Galileo in 1593) and the barometer (invented by his pupil Torricelli in 1643).

Such instruments couldn’t predict anything on their own, but they made possible accurate daily weather observations. Realizing this, Thomas Jefferson, a pioneer in modern weather forecasting, ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to keep meticulous weather records during their 1804-06 expedition to the American West. He also made his own records wherever he resided, writing in his meteorological diary, “My method is to make two observations a day.”

Most governments, however, remained dismissive of weather forecasting until World War I. Suddenly, knowing which way the wind would blow tomorrow meant the difference between gassing your own side or the enemy’s.

To make accurate predictions, meteorologists needed a mathematical model that could combine different types of data into a single forecast. The first attempt, by the English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson in 1917, took six weeks to calculate and turned out to be completely wrong.

There were still doubts about the accuracy of weather forecasting when the Allied meteorological team told Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower that there was only one window of opportunity for a Normandy landing: June 6, 1944. Despite his misgivings, Eisenhower acted on the information, surprising German meteorologists who had predicted that storms would continue in the English Channel until mid-June.

As we all know, meteorologists still occasionally make the wrong predictions. That’s when the old proverb comes into play: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothes.”

Historically Speaking: Fantasies of Alien Life

Human beings have never encountered extra-terrestrials, but we’ve been imagining them for thousands of years

The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2019

Fifty years ago this month, Kurt Vonnegut published “Slaughterhouse-Five,” his classic semi-autobiographical, quasi-science fiction novel about World War II and its aftermath. The story follows the adventures of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survives the bombing of Dresden in 1945, only to be abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and exhibited in their zoo. Vonnegut’s absurd-looking Tralfamadorians (they resemble green toilet plungers) are essentially vehicles for his meditations on the purpose of life.

Some readers may dismiss science fiction as mere genre writing. But the idea that there may be life on other planets has engaged many of history’s greatest thinkers, starting with the ancient Greeks. On the pro-alien side were the Pythagoreans, a fifth-century B.C. sect, which argued that life must exist on the moon; in the third century B.C., the Epicureans believed that there was an infinite number of life-supporting worlds. But Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics argued the opposite. In “On the Heavens,” Aristotle specifically rejected the possibility that other worlds might exist, on the grounds that the Earth is at the center of a perfect and finite universe.

The Catholic Church sided with Plato and Aristotle: If there was only one God, there could be only one world. But in Asia, early Buddhism encouraged philosophical explorations into the idea of multiverses and parallel worlds. Buddhist influence can be seen in the 10th-century Japanese romance “The Bamboo Cutter,” whose story of a marooned moon princess and a lovelorn emperor was so popular in its time that it is mentioned in Murasaki Shikibu’s seminal novel, “The Tale of Genji.”

During the Renaissance, Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, advanced in his book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” (1543), and Galileo’s telescopic observations of the heavens in 1610 proved that the Church’s traditional picture of the cosmos was wrong. The discovery prompted Western thinkers to imagine the possibility of alien civilizations. From Johannes Kepler to Voltaire, imagining life on the moon (or elsewhere) became a popular pastime among advanced thinkers. In “Paradise Lost” (1667), the poet John Milton wondered “if Land be there,/Fields and Inhabitants.”

Such benign musings about extraterrestrial life didn’t survive the impact of industrialization, colonialism and evolutionary theory. In the 19th century, debates over whether aliens have souls morphed into fears about humans becoming their favorite snack food. This particular strain of paranoia reached its apogee in the alien-invasion novel “The War of the Worlds,” published in 1897 by the British writer H.G. Wells. Wells’s downbeat message—that contact with aliens would lead to a Darwinian fight for survival—resonated throughout the 20th century.

And it isn’t just science fiction writers who ponder “what if.” The physicist Stephen Hawking once compared an encounter with aliens to Christopher Columbus landing in America, “which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” More hopeful visions—such as Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” about a lovable alien who wants to get back home—have been exceptions to the rule.

The real mystery about aliens is the one described by the so-called “Fermi paradox.” The 20th-century physicist Enrico Fermi observed that, given the number of stars in the universe, it is highly probable that alien life exists. So why haven’t we seen it yet? As Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?”