Our human interface with reality

An extract from “Bottleneck” describing the impact that the 1998 shower had on me (psychologically!).

Memories of the 1998 Leonid Meteor Shower

In our awake state, unusual things are difficult to see. Where rare items need to be recognised accurately in visual screening tasks, for example detecting knives in luggage or tumours in mammograms, the rarity of such items leads to disturbingly low detection rates: if observers do not find what they are looking for fairly frequently, they often fail to notice it when it does appear.[1]

When we sense something which is completely new to us, our mind tries to fit the sensations with something that we are already familiar with. Shortly after the first lunar landing in 1969 the BBC broadcast a series of children’s programs called “The Clangers”, about a community of lovable knitted creatures who lived on a tiny planet somewhere out in space. One programme that I watched with my children made a particular impact on me. A strange creature had crashed on their planet and the Clangers were puzzled and alarmed because it trying to eat the planet itself.[2] [3]

Seen from my adult reality it was a Lunar Surveyor type spacecraft which had a mechanical scoop on an extendable arm which it used to collect soil samples.[4] [5] The sympathetic Clangers tried to interact with it, with disastrous consequences. It reminded me just how difficult it is for us to interpret experiences that are completely new to us. Even if we sense something completely new, our mind presents us with a view of something that we already recognise in part.

My fascination with space occasionally leads me to stand outside on a cold night, gazing up into the sky. Most of what we see in the night sky remains constant through the seasons. The stars maintain the same relative positions within the celestial sphere, allowing us to see the same constellations through the centuries. Our view of it all shifts a little from summer to winter, due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to the axis of our orbit around the Sun. Then there are the “wandering stars”, the Sun’s planets that move across our night sky at rates depending on the distance of their own orbits around the Sun, and hence appear in different constellations from year to year. And lastly there is our Moon, which lends its name and the duration of its cycle to our calendar month, but not to its synchronism.

Meteor showers, however, are among the few phenomena that recur around the same precise dates every year. They are usually named after the nearest bright star to where the “shooting stars” appear to radiate from, within the night sky. As the Earth orbits the Sun it sweeps through different regions of space, repeating the same trajectory year after year. Although space is generally empty, comets orbiting the Earth leave an extended trail of dust and debris, and when the Earth passes through one of these trails, the debris is vaporised as it encounters the friction of our upper atmosphere. The larger pieces may take seconds to be annihilated, resulting in the extended bright trail of a meteor.

Can you remember the experience of driving a car with bright headlights into a scene of gently falling snow? The bright snowflakes appear as streaks of light, all radiating out from a single point directly ahead of the car. The reality is that it is we who are moving, not the snowflake, as would be confirmed by an observer standing at the roadside. And so it is with meteor showers, it is just we, the passengers on mother Earth, who are driving headlong around the Sun at great speed, our screen of the Earth’s atmosphere intercepting pieces of comet debris, and briefly burning them up.

In our annual journey around the Sun, we bump into these patches of comet debris on the same dates every year. So meteor showers are very predictable in their timing, but less so in their intensity. Back in late 1998, the Leonid meteor shower was expected to peak on the night of November 17/18th as usual.[6] By coincidence, I was due to attend an event at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in London that very evening. You might imagine that an astronomical observatory would be the ideal place to find oneself for an astronomical light show, but London had grown vastly in size and illumination since the observatory was built in 1675, and the large amount of scattered light from the illuminated city would have made it very difficult to see the night sky clearly from there.

I was at my home on November 16th, the preceding evening, and although the meteor shower was expected to be only just beginning on that earlier night, I had hoped to catch a glimpse of at least one meteor trail. Unfortunately the sky was completely obscured by cloud, and the weather forecast offered little hope of seeing anything of the night sky. I resigned myself to the situation, read for a while and prepared to go to bed shortly after midnight. Then I remembered the anticipated meteor shower, poked my head outside, only to find that miraculously, the clouds had just cleared and there above me was the clear night sky. I quickly put on some warm clothes and went outside.

When I looked up, I was greeted with one of the most memorable visual experiences of my whole life. Large bright green fireballs hurtled across the sky above me, leaving long glowing trails. I was both exhilarated and scared, for I had never seen anything like it before. Over the next hour I probably saw around 100 meteors and fireballs in total, but it was not the number which shook me, but their sheer size. Some were so big that they really scared me! The green fireballs got brighter and brighter as they crossed the sky and suddenly disappeared. For each I expected to hear a bang, but there was none, just an inappropriately eerie silence. The dark smoky trails that they left behind extended across a third of the sky, and took ten minutes or more to diffuse and disperse, so at one time I could count half a dozen that still lingered above me.[7] [8] [9]

I struggled to make sense of it all, partly for the sheer scale of the spectacle, but especially as there was no accompanying sound. My mind expected to hear roars and rumbles to match such visual extravaganza, but there was just an eerie silence. That year’s display was far bigger than I had anticipated. Alone I watched these brilliant green orbs pass overhead, anxiously wondering if some other part of our planet was now being bombarded by these solid objects from outer space. I suddenly felt awe for my tiny planet in the immensity of the universe.

I found myself remembering the novel: “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells, in which he described something similar: “Then came the night of the first falling star. It was seen early in the morning, rushing over Winchester eastward, a line of flame high in the atmosphere. Hundreds must have seen it, and taken it for an ordinary falling star. Albin described it as leaving a greenish streak behind it that glowed for some seconds”.[10] I wondered if Wells had been inspired by reading reports of previous spectacular and frightening Leonid meteor showers, notably in 1833, it is even possible that my own anxiety was rooted in my knowledge of his story.

The following morning I nervously checked for news reports of catastrophic asteroid strikes, and was relieved and even surprised to find that no humans had been harmed in the making of the previous night’s spectacle. The meteor show the following night was much smaller than anticipated and not visible from London due to mist, so I was especially fortunate to have seen it when I did.

I have related this experience because it was one of the few situations in which I have been confronted with a very alien experience, and one of which I wrote down details at the time. Memories of single strange events seem to fade, to be smoothed over to fit other more recent and more repeated experiences. It was only when I read my earlier notes that many details were remembered, and now I wish that I had recorded more detail at the time.

by Richard Epworth.

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For more information see: www.humanbottleneck.com

 Footnotes:

[1]“Cognitive psychology: Rare items often missed in visual searches”, Jeremy M. Wolfe, Todd S. Horowitz, and Naomi M. Kenner, Brief Communications, Nature 435, 439-440 (May 2005)

[2]“The Clangers” is a popular British stop-motion animated children’s TV series about a family of mouse-like creatures who live on, and in, a small blue planet. The programmes were originally broadcast by the BBC from 1969–1972.

[3]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clangers

[4]“Lunar Exploration: Human Pioneers and Robotic Surveyors”, Paolo Ulivi, Pub. Springer (2004), ISBN-13: 978-1852337469

[5]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_3#Soil_mechanics_surface_sampler

[6]The first anecdotal account of the Leonid’s meteor shower was in 902 AD. On Nov. 15, 1630, Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer best known for his laws of planetary motion, died. At his funeral two days later the Leonid’s lit up the sky. This was considered as a salute from God – Source: “Tycho and Kepler”.

[7]“Leonid fireballs dazzle the world”, G. Seronik, Sky & Telescope, 97:2 (1999 February), pp.123-124

[8]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_showers

[9]http://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/history.html

[10]“The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells, Chapter Two, The Falling Star, 1898.

2 comments on “Excerpt from Chapter 3 – The 1998 Leonid Meteor Shower

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Keith on September 23, 2015 12:44 am

Hi Richard, just read your piece “Memories of the 1998 Leonid Meteor Shower”. I was searching the web to see if anyone else had reported anything amazing in late 1998. I also had a very strange experience out of the blue whilst studyng in Reading in 1998. I was pulling an all nighter in my uni hall of residence studying hard before an exam the next day and decided to walk across my hall’s courtyard to a vending machine to get some crisps, on my way back across this 30 meter quadrangle I was suddenly startled and almost paralysed in an intensly bright beaming light that lit up the whole area as if complete daylight for about 2 full seconds and was absolutely shocked to my core! I froze and didn’t know what to think for a split second before quickly looking up and seeing the end of the most amazing meteor trailing across the sky! Like you, no sound but it left a smokey trail in the sky above for a couple of minutes! When I watch the images of the famous Meteor in Russia a few years ago i always feel a bit apathetic as what i saw was very similar to this video footage! It must have been between 2 and 4 am in the morning on a weeknight and of course not many people are out and about then but I still couldn’t believe I never heard a thing about it from anyone at all! I figured surely some people perhaps that were driving on the M4 motorway nearby would have seen it and it would be in the papers at least? So glad to read an account of what I guess was the same evening!

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Richard Epworth on September 23, 2015 8:15 am

Thanks for commenting Keith. I too am delighted to find someone else who had a similar experience. It was so dramatic that I do not expect to ever see anything like it again. It is easy to question our unique experiences as time goes by and we cannot find anyone else who has shared it. You might find the book interesting.

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