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Physics With a Twist

Forensic Astronomer Cracks the Case of Historic Meteor Procession

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It was a cloudy winter night along the northeastern United States in February 1913, so most people might not have noticed anything unusual around 9 PM, but for a lucky few with clearer conditions -- and a penchant for staring up at the night sky -- there was a spectacular display of a series of fireballs moving from one end of the horizon to the other, following the same trajectory. It was a meteor procession -- an exceedingly rare event in which a meteor breaks up when it hits the Earth's atmosphere. Normally, a meteor burns up as it plunges to Earth, but the fiery fragments in a procession travel in a nearly horizontal path running parallel to the surface of the Earth.

The meteor procession of February 9, 1913, captured newspaper headlines all over the northeast, and inspired a painting by Canadian astronomer Gustav Hahn. We're approaching the 100th anniversary of that display, so it's fitting that Donald Olson -- a self-described "forensic astronomer" at Texas State University -- has a new article (co-authored by Steve Hutcheon of Australia's Astronomical Association of Queensland) in Sky and Telescope detailing his latest analysis of historical accounts describing the procession.

I've been a fan of Olson's quirky research for years, and wrote about his findings several times for Discovery News. There was his intriguing hypothesis that the moon may have contributed to the sinking of the Titanic. He helped clear up confusion among historians as to the precise location of Julius Caesar's landing site when the Roman general invaded Britain in 55 B.C. He showed that Mary Shelley was probably telling the truth about a moonlit "waking dream" that inspired her to pen Frankenstein. And he's studied nagging astronomy-related issues in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the photography of Ansel Adams, and Edvard Munch's "The Scream" (likely inspired by a blood-red sky at sunset, an after-effect of the 1883 eruption of Mount Krakatoa in Indonesia)

Depiction of the 1913 meteor procession by Canadian artist Gustav Hahn. Credit: University of Toronto Archives (A2008-0023), © Natalie McMinn

Nor is this the first time Olson has tacked meteor procession. There was another such event in 1860, he discovered, one that likely inspired a classic poem by Walt Whitman, "Year of Meteors":

Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,

Nor the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting

over our heads,

(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;)

Originally historians assumed that Whitman was referring to the 1833 or 1858 Leonid meteor storms, or a well-documented meteor that fell in 1959, but Olson suspected that there might be a record of a meteor procession in the historical record around the samr time. There was: he found several eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports of "a spectacular procession of multiple fireballs" on July 20, 1860. It even inspired yet another artist, Frederic Church, "The Meteor of 1860." (Artists seem to like incorporating astronomical events into their paintings.)

Frederic Church's "The Meteor of 1860." Public domain.

Olson came across the Church painting and the Whitman mystery a few years after stumbling upon Hahn's canvas (Hahn was an amateur astronomer) in an article by astronomer Clarence Chant, who evocatively described the "slow, majestic motion of the bodies., and almost equally remarkable was the perfect formation which they retained."

Hahn's painting also had an inscription: "Meteor display of February 9, 1913, as seen near High Park."He quickly recognized the similarities between the Hahn and Church scenes, and from there made the connection to the Whitman poem.

Which brings us to Olson's latest work. William F. Denning penned an article about the 1913 procession in Nature in 1916, observing that its extended trajectory seemed unparalleled in astronomical history. Based on reports from ship navigators around the world, as well as other eyewitness accounts, it seemed to space more than 6000 miles. Later that year, in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, he renewed his call for more navigational reports, since these were the best means of definitively confirming the range of the procession's trajectory.

Olson and Hutcheon answered the call, albeit 100 years later. They combed through vast maritime archives and found seven new ship reports from that era. based on their subsequent analysis, they were able to extend the range of the 1913 procession's trajectory by another 1000 miles. "The track now goes more than 7000 miles -- that's more than a quarter of the way around the world," Olson said via press release. His new analysis is "the most complete map ever drawn of the ground track of the procession."

References:

Chant, C. (1913). "An Extraordinary Meteoric Display". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 7: 145–19.

Olson, Donald and Hutcheon, Steve. "The Great Meteor Procession of 1913," Sky and Telescope, February 2013.

Pickering, W. H. (1922) "The Meteoric Procession of February 9, 1913, Part I" in Popular Astronomy, 30: 632.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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