This is the first of a three part series.
The earliest mention of the Perseid Meteor Shower comes from China. A record from A.D. 36 remarks that eyewitnesses saw more than 100 meteors one morning. Centuries later, that same shower became associated with the martyr, St. Lawrence the Deacon and called St. Lawrence’s Tears.
Perseus and St. Lawrence
Meteor showers receive their “official” name from the constellation from which they appear to originate, called their “radiant” (as in, they radiate out from that constellation). In 1835, Adolphe Quetelet identified Perseus as the radiant for this August shower.
However, before Quetelet dubbed it the Perseid meteor shower, Catholics were already referring to it as the Tears of St. Lawrence or St. Lawrence’s Tears. The shower can be seen as early as mid-July but the peak occurs around the Feast of St. Lawrence the Deacon (August 10).
St. Lawrence died during the persecution of Emperor Valerian, in A.D. 258. According to the Golden Legend, Pope Sixtus II entrusted Lawrence with the Church’s wealth to distribute to the poor. He did so, while miraculously healing a couple of people along the way.
Not long after the martyrdom of Pope Sixtus, Roman authorities summoned Lawrence to the executioners. They also demanded he bring the Church’s wealth with him. He arrived with a handful of poor and crippled men. When questioned, he said they were the Church’s wealth.
While they beheaded Sixtus, they stretched Lawrence out onto a gridiron to roast him to death. According to the legend, at one point Lawrence called out to his executioner to turn him over: he was done on that side.
According to Italian folklore, the meteors during the Perseid meteor shower represents the coals of St. Lawrence’s gridiron. Folklore says that if a person waters a basil plant and then leaves it out during the shower, he’ll find coal chips under the plant the next day.
The Swift-Tuttle Comet
Discovered in 1862, the Swift-Tuttle Comet is the source of the Perseid meteor shower. When Earth intersects one of the comet’s paths (its orbit changes slightly over time), then we get a meteor shower. The meteors we see are debris left behind by the comet’s tail. Intersecting takes time, which is why the shower occurs over a series of days, with the peak on August 12.
Two things can affect the number of meteors seen during the shower. First, the Earth can pass through a section of the path rich in dust and ice particles, and that can lead to a high number of meteors. Or, it can pass through a poor section, and then the shower isn’t as spectacular.
Secondly, lack of darkness can pose a problem. As anyone who stargazes knows, light pollution obscures the night sky. Observers need darkness to observe as much as possible with the naked eye or telescopes. We usually think of light pollution as manmade but there is a light source we never made that can foul things up: the moon.
If the moon is full, then there’s too much light in the sky to see all of the meteors. Many of these streaks of light are small particles that can be easily outshone.
Brightest Perseid Meteor Shower in History?
A viral story on the Internet claims that this year, St. Lawrence’s Tears will be the brightest in recorded human history. Unfortunately, this is false.
The Perseid meteor shower never reaches the number of meteors an hour to qualify as a “storm”. In 1993, there was a spike in the number of meteors, peaking at 300 per hour. Last year, there were only slightly more meteors than normal. Nothing spectacular is expected for this coming show. In fact, there may be fewer meteors this August because of a pesky natural occurrence.
This year, the moon was full on August 7. By the time the 12th comes along, it will not have dimmed enough in brightness to allow for the best viewing. In fact, because of the moon’s brightness, the best time to see the shower is August 11 at approximately 10 pm local daylight savings time.
Tips for the Best Viewing
If you wish to view the shower and honor St. Lawrence, there are a few things you can do:
- If you can, view the shower on August 11 at around 10 pm local time.
- Another astronomy website suggests seeing the shower during the predawn hours of August 12. This is a good alternative if you can’t make it August 11.
- Instead of wishing on a star, say a small prayer to St. Lawrence every time you spot a meteor.
- If you like to munch on something while watching the stars, then try out this recipe for St. Lawrence Sweets! They’re double-baked. *wink*
- As mentioned before, try to get away from as much light pollution as possible. Take a flashlight, a chair, and some friends to help you spot as many shooting stars as you can.
Part Two of this Series
This is only the first part of an ongoing astronomical series. Next week, I’ll write about the upcoming eclipse and what eclipses have meant for Christians in the past. Happy stargazing!
Acacia St. Anthony can be followed on Twitter.