May 28, 2020

27.06.10: Whitman’s Meteors Identified.

As the June Bootids ramp up this evening and we brave the swarms of mosquitoes for a chance fireball sighting, consider the following tale. A historical mystery concerning a unique meteor precession has been solved. Recently, the editor of Sky & Telescope Roger Sinnott teamed up with professors and students at Texas State University to solve the mystery of Walt Whitman’s meteors. Their astounding results were recently revealed in the July 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope. American poet Walt Whitman refers to the precession in his poem titled the “Year of Meteors (1859-60.)” in his landmark work Leaves of Grass. This sighting has been popularly mis-attributed to the great Leonid meteor storm of 1833, which Whitman did indeed witness. The shower, however, occurred a full 26 years prior to the mentioned date; also, Whitman, an avid amateur astronomer and sky observer himself, referred to “the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads,” describing a stately train and not the quick apparition indicative of early morning meteors… just what did Walt see? A major breakthrough came from the art and news reports of the day; several eyewitness accounts describe a sight similar to Whitman’s over the US Northeast on July 20, 1860. Artist Frederic Church also captured a faithful rendition (see above) of just such a meteor procession. Such an event occurs when a large meteor comes in at an oblique angle to our atmosphere, creating a bolide train that can be visible for several minutes. Just such an event was captured on video in modern times over the Teton Range in Wyoming on August 10, 1972. The event can be particularly spectacular if the meteor breaks apart, as apparently happened in 1860. We can also thank Church as a member of the Realist school for depicting the event with such stark authenticity…just think, a few centuries prior, and we would have depicted the bolide with garnishing or a trailing banner! Hats off to Sinnott and the staff and students of Texas State University for an astronomical mystery well sleuthed and solved… just how many other astro-tales are out there in art and literature, waiting to be told?