I intend to go out to watch the Perseid meteor shower tonight. It will be reaching its peak tonight after midnight. This is something I've done many years since I was sixteen (there were quite a few years in which the weather was uncooperative, and a few years I just forgot.)
Very rarely has anyone gone with me, and I don't really blame them. It's tough being out at that hour, even for a great fireworks display.
And the Perseids are NOT a great fireworks display. However, each year on the news shows or news Web sites or in other popular media, I see the Perseids billed as something spectacular. Yesterday on CNN there was a short story which told people to go ahead and stay up late to watch the vivid meteors and to take their cameras with them and to submit their amazing shooting star photos and videos. This struck me as idiotic. Yes, there are great photographers and amateur astronomers who can get wonderful shots of meteors; but it takes the right equipment, patience, and skill. And the photos all look pretty much alike and aren't that amazing, just grainy streaks of light across a dark screen.
Streaks of light across a dark screen (the sky) is exactly what a shooting star looks like. I think the media, in what little attention they give this sort of thing, play it up all wrong.
Here is what I find wonderful about watching meteors. I love knowing that there are little specks of rock, most of them the size of a grain of sand, some perhaps as big as a pea, that have broken free from a comet. This speck has been drifting through our solar system in one form or another ever since the Earth was a young churning mass of goo. It has probably ranged far out past the orbit of Pluto. Now you can see it hit the atmosphere above you, vaporizing in a flash of light; it may be faint, or it may be bright enough to cast a shadow and leave a train of glowing gas that will hang there for second.
I can watch this someplace very dark, with crickets singing and scores of ancient stars shining, and with few other people around. It all seems supremely huge and, at the same time, secret and quiet.