The Perseid Meteors: The Tears of Saint Lawrence

Manfred Mache

The famous Perseid Meteor Shower appears each year between August 1st and 31st, with maximum activity usually occurring on August 12th. I'll get back to this date in a moment.

To digress for a second, the phenomenon of shooting stars (meteors) was explained in the 1860's by the following three notable astronomers: John Couch Adams (who first calculated the position of Neptune in 1845), Daniel Kirkwood (explained the mathematical relationship for the Kirkwood Gaps in empty lanes of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter), and Giovanni Schiaparelli (best known for discovering "Canali" on the surface of Mars). The mechanism of shooting stars suggested by these men is the result of the Earth crossing the trail of debris left in the wake of comets as they orbit the Sun. These particles (debris), which normally may be as large as a grape or as small as a grain of sand when colliding with the Earth's atmosphere, produce enough frictional heat to vaporize them, creating the appearance of sudden bright streaks of light that flash across the sky. Basically, it's nothing more than comet dust entering the Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Returning to the August 12th date, the historical sidelight of the Perseid Shower which contributed to its notoriety took place on August 10, 258 AD, four days after Pope Sixtus II's execution. A Roman prefect commanded a Christian deacon named Lawrence to surrender the church valuables to him. Lawrence went to the prefect's office with a group of sick and destitute people, stating that these unfortunate souls were truly the treasures of the church. The prefect became so enraged that, following the Roman practice of the time, had Lawrence roasted alive by tying him to an iron grid hovering over a fire.

That night the sky literally lit up with shooting stars streaming out of the constellation Perseus. These shooting stars then came to be known as the "Tears of Saint Lawrence". What a way to go!

The moral of this story is:

Be accommodating to your local prefect.