What am I myself but one of your meteors?
August 16, 2010 7:55 PM   Subscribe

"A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads, Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone" Walt Whitman wrote these words in the poem Year of Meteors, 1859 ’60. Not until this year did a team of forensic astronomers at Texas State University, with the assistance of a painting from the Hudson River School, figure out what he was really talking about.

- A conversation with Ava Pope, one of the students working on the problem.
- a related image of a similar event, the "Canadian Fireball Procession of 1913" helped jog the memory of TSU astronomer Donald Olsen
- All known Earth-grazing fireballs

thanks to this user for the idea
posted by jessamyn (15 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a lit-major or anything, but didn't Twain have a piece that talked about this same event?
posted by Navelgazer at 8:35 PM on August 16, 2010

[this is good]
posted by weston at 8:37 PM on August 16, 2010

Sparkles from the Wheel.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:18 PM on August 16, 2010

IHNTA, IJLS forensic astronomy.

Navelgazer: Are you thinking of A Full And Reliable Account Of The Extraordinary Meteoric Shower Of Last Saturday Night? Wrong year.
posted by dhartung at 9:22 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Now for your next assignment, Ms Pope: the mystery of SN 1054.

SN 1054 (Crab Supernova) was a supernova that was widely seen on Earth in the year 1054. It was recorded by Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, and Persian/Arab astronomers as being bright enough to see in daylight for 23 days and was visible in the night sky for 653 days.[1][2][3]

Yet there is no known account of this event from a European observer.

How can this possibly be?
posted by jamjam at 10:09 PM on August 16, 2010

I'm not a lit-major or anything, but didn't Twain have a piece that talked about this same event?

It was called A Curious Pleasure Excursion, and was wonderfully illustrated by William L. Brown. You can find it in this edition of Graphics Classics.

I am a lit major. The appellation is not hyphenated.
posted by clarknova at 10:20 PM on August 16, 2010

My all time favorite Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon depicted a meteor, with the caption "No meteor has ever hit the earth."
posted by Tube at 10:25 PM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh wait, that wasn't it at all. That'll teach me to post after my nightly Valerian and whiskey.
posted by clarknova at 10:27 PM on August 16, 2010

Now my interest is really piqued about the supernova. Some people think that there are petroglyphs in what is now the US that are a record of the event. [1, 2]
posted by jessamyn at 10:32 PM on August 16, 2010

What I want to know is, what did I see over southern Michigan, sometime between 1964 an 1967 (roughly speaking), I think at the end of August or beginning of September. (around Labor Day). It was big and bright, and I suppose, slow-moving, travelling from east to west. I always remembered the fireball as being about the size of the moon, but I was a little kid. We were at a drive-in movie. (just at a wild-assed guess, I suppose it may have been 1966 and the movie was "Glass Bottom Boat", at the Westside Drive-In, Flint, Michigan. BUT, that's the drive-in we went to when we went, and that is just one movie I specifically remember seeing there).

It was too big and bright to dismiss as an ordinary meteor. It lasted too long for that. Trying to search for it is made difficult because the Leonids, in November, were spectacular that year, and also, there was a car model by that name.
posted by Goofyy at 10:42 PM on August 16, 2010

July 1054 had several other events as well. I'm no historian, but it's possible that the authors of all the remaining documents from that time period were busy with other things. Also, the Middle Ages weren't exactly the best time to be an astronomer in Europe, if I remember correctly.
posted by clorox at 12:15 AM on August 17, 2010

My all time favorite Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon depicted a meteor, with the caption "No meteor has ever hit the earth."

Similarly, there's no lava inside the Earth whatsoever.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 2:00 AM on August 17, 2010

The sky is falling, the sky is falling!

posted by not_on_display at 7:46 AM on August 17, 2010

This broad public attention, as well as study by many professional astronomers of the day, made the meteor procession of 1860 one of the single most famous celestial events of its day, and quite possibly the most documented meteor appearance in history. Despite this, memory of the dazzling event faded so much that by the middle of the 20th century scholars were left puzzled over what Whitman had actually seen.
Fascinating! Great post, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on August 17, 2010

"I think this may be the most observed, and most documented, single meteor event in history," says astronomical sleuth Donald Olson of Texas State University in San Marcos. "From the Great Lakes to New England – every town that had a newspaper wrote about the 1860 meteor." Despite this, the procession had apparently faded so much from memory by the mid-twentieth century that researchers were not sure what Whitman's poem referred to.

Quoting almost the same extract as languagehat because it's really remarkable, in a sad way, how soon we forget.

As for European observations of the 1054 supernova, I found this which helpfully mentions that the Arabs also didn't notice it. That puts the kibosh on any easy "dark ages are dark" theory. Maybe they did see it but just no records survive because the ones who noted it weren't themselves notable?
posted by DU at 9:16 AM on August 17, 2010

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