The seventeenth of November, 2010: gloom, and what the hell are those?

Tonight’s the night when the Leonid meteor shower really hits its stride.

Left: the Great Leonid Shower of 1833. Right: a less fanciful view of a Slightly Less Great Leonid Shower.

The Leonid meteoroids travel in the path of the comet Tempel-Tuttel, and get their name because they appear to radiate from the constellation Leo. When we encounter them each November, they’re shifting at a rate of about 72,000 metres per second. I could list more facts and figures, but then that’s what Wikipedia’s for.

Tonight is the Leonids’ big night (although it won’t be as big as the night of November 12, 1833, when North America saw a storm of flaming Leonids raining down in their hundreds of thousands, the event that really set scientists thinking along what-the-hell-are-those lines where meteors were concerned). How big will it be? Here’s the Fluxtimator to tell us!

So, not all that big, sadly. And the forecasters forecast gloom.

I won’t be making a habit of this, but here’s a short and relevant excerpt from my as-yet-unpublished-and-in-fact-not-quite-finished novel Trivial:

‘It’s hard to imagine.’

‘I know,’ Tess said.

We were lying on our backs on a picnic rug. It was late – perhaps midnight, perhaps later than that. I don’t precisely recall the date but a competent astronomer would be able to estimate it: it was the night of the first fall of the Leonid meteors in my twenty-seventh year. We had walked to the park (with picnic rug, woollens and flask of tea) to lie on our backs and watch the meteors.

There hadn’t been any meteors yet but we were happy – or, at least, I was happy – just lying and watching the old light from the high stars.

I am bad with stars but I knew Sirius – the dog star, there above the peaked roof of the manor house. I lay on my back and flexed my cold toes and blinked at Sirius. Its light takes more than eight years to get to earth, to get to us. This – like many things regarding the stars and the earth – is hard to imagine. But that wasn’t what we were talking about, Tess and me.

‘A little me.’

‘A little us.’

‘Yes. Of course.’ Her hand was upturned on the picnic rug and I rested mine on top of it. ‘A little – a little incarnation,’ I said.

I was watching her face and I could see the starlit parabola of her cheekbone curve in a slow smile.


She rolled over, bringing herself a half-bodywidth closer to me. I kissed the wool of her bobblehat. She sneaked one cold hand under the hem of my sweater.


‘Don’t be so soft.’ She craned her neck to look again at the clear sky. ‘Seen one yet?’


Then she rested her head on my shoulder.

‘Everyone worries,’ she said, ‘about the responsibility of bringing a child into the world, don’t they?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, because I didn’t. ‘Do they?’

‘Well, y’know – what sort of a world is this to bring a child into, and all that.’

I sighed and said: ‘The world isn’t as bad as all that, really.’

A meteor flared silently eight miles above.

Happy Leonid hunting.


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