In the coming days, three events conspire to remind us that are all hurtling through space on a planet called Earth. One is the winter solstice, which occurs precisely on Monday, December 21, at 8:30 a.m.
The day of the solstice has the shortest period of daylight of any day of the year.
However, at that magic solstice moment, the sun stops its southern motion and begins to travel north.
As a result, old Sol rises higher in the sky every day. The number of daylight hours incrementally increases by a few minutes every day. We may have a long, cold winter ahead, but the solstice embodies the promise of spring.
Even as winter begins, we celebrate that promise throughout the world as the western Christmas, the Jewish Chanukah, the African-American Kwanzaa, the Germanic Yule, the Iranian Yalda, the Hopi Soyal, the Scandinavian St. Lucia’s Day, the Chinese Dong Zhi, the Zuni Shalako, the Japanese Toji, the Hawaiian Makahiki, and the Zulu Umkhosi Wokweshwama.
Such celebrations have occurred for almost as old as we have been human. The western Christmas celebration has some of its origins in the Roman Saturnalia and the German Yule. And all our celebrations are rooted in solstice harvest festivals that predate written history.
The second notable event is the annual return of the year’s best meteor display, the Geminid meteor shower.
Right now, Earth is passing through a cloud of dust and debris left by 3200 Phaethon, a strange object that is part asteroid and part comet. Its composition is mostly rock, making it an asteroid. However, its orbit is more like a comet. At its farthest point from the sun, it travels past the orbit of Mars. At its closest point, it passes very close to the sun — well within the orbit of Mercury.
The sun’s heat releases a large quantity of dust from Phaethon. Earth passes right through that cloud of debris at the stunning speed of 67,000 miles per hour as it orbits the sun.
We often say that the particles enter Earth’s atmosphere, but that is a slight misunderstanding. Those particles are mostly just sitting there minding their own dusty business when fate in the form of a careening planet dives into them.
As the particles rub violently against the Earth’s atmosphere, they heat the air around themselves and leave the characteristic streaks we call meteors or “shooting stars.”
We are not seeing the particles burn up. We are seeing the hot, ionized air around them as they burn up.
Earth takes about ten days to pass through the cloud, but we pass through the thickest part of it during the evening and morning of Dec. 13/14.
The best view will be had under a dark, rural sky during the predawn hours of Dec. 14.
The Perseid shower in August has a reputation for being the best meteor shower of the year. However, that reputation is mostly a matter of convenience. August is warmer and generally clearer than December.
The Geminids are a better shower by far if we can arrange a rare, late-autumn night without clouds. For one thing, the nights are longer in December. More significantly, the Geminid cloud contains a higher density of meteor-making detritus than the Perseids.
If it happens to be clear that night, travel away from the city lights to a dark, rural location. Dress warmly, and prepare to observe all night. Look southeast if you can, but in any case, look in the direction the least light polluted by distant towns and cities. Meteors will appear over the entire sky.
Most nights, the shower peaks between 2 and 3 a.m. on Dec. 14. Generally speaking, you’ll see the most meteors after local midnight as our location on Earth turns into the direction of its orbit, and more meteor-causing particles are crashing into Earth’s atmosphere at higher velocities. Under a dark, rural sky, you may see as many as 120 meteors per hour during the peak hour.
As I wend my weary way home after a long but glorious night of observing the Geminids, my thoughts will inevitably turn to a tragic anniversary of the day. On Dec. 14, 2012, a disturbed person, whose name I will not dignify by repeating it here, entered Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 20 children and six of the adults who served them.
I’ve done astronomical programs for so many school classes and other youth groups that long ago I lost count. When I heard the news about Sandy Hook, I had to pull my car off to the side of the road. Thousands of first-grade faces flashed like meteors before my eyes.
Perhaps those kids will live another 90 years and inspire the lives of others. Or perhaps they will succumb to disease or famine or our hatred toward each other.
Perhaps, like meteors, they will flash briefly and brilliantly across the firmament. Then they will be gone, their lives but a shimmering instant in a cosmos old beyond measure.
The best holiday gift that we can provide them is not a new PlayStation or a bigger-screen TV. It is simply to be there.
We must provide our children with a safe place of shelter against the ravages of a worldwide pandemic. We must keep them warm and feed them.
But after those duties are complete, we must feed their souls with love and knowledge. Hunger and deprivation will break their bodies. Loneliness and ignorance will break their spirits.
As the old Christmas carol reminds us, we must provide them with “comfort and joy.” So do something special with a child this holiday season.
Ice skate. Walk around the neighborhood and sing carols. Launch a balloon. Show them the stars. Dance with joy that they and you are still on the planet.
The pandemic reminds us of the fragility of life. Recent political events remind us that we are deeply divided by hate and political obstinacy. The long, cold winter seems destined to last a very long time.
What we must not do is hate our political and philosophical adversaries. Hate and unreasoned anger are diseases far worse than the Covid-19 pandemic. They infect our behavior toward others, of course. But worse, they infect the next generation, who learn to hate from our hateful example.
We must, all of us, dedicate ourselves to showing those children the wonder and majesty of the universe they live in and are integrally a part of, not just in its mind-bending totality but in all of its tiny parts.
There is as much profound meaning in a child’s joyful laugh or a single human tear of mourning as there is in the whole universe. It is our duty to infect our children with love and reason and — as I hope you will come to understand if you don’t already – our greatest joy.
The greatest gift you can give yourself is knowing that they will remember your love for them when you are gone.
Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Joyous Kwanzaa. Shalom. As-salaam alaykum. Pax vobiscum. Namaste. May your winter-solstice celebration of whatever faith or creed be filled with peace, joy, and freedom from fear. May you spend it thinking of those you love if you cannot be with them. And may they be thinking of you.
If meteor showers like the Geminids are meant to remind us of anything, they are meant to remind us of this: We are all huddled together on a speck of rock, a tiny spacecraft, a fragile lifeboat, an island of beauty careening through a dark and dangerous void. We are all members of the same race, the human race. Let’s start acting like it.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.