Originally written on August 10, 2020. Updated 2023
In August, as Earth’s orbit crosses the dust ejected by the comet Swift-Tuttle (the largest object known to repeatedly pass by Earth) provides a fabulous spectacle for viewers on Earth.
It is a regular event every year and, as usual, it will reach its peak between the 10th of August (St. Lawrence) and the 12th.
Despite talk of “shooting stars”, the Perseids are actually debris (dust and ice) left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle as it goes around the Sun. The comet last reached perihelion, the closest point to the sun, in December 1992 and will do so again in July 2126, when, according to experts, it should be visible to the naked eye. However, in the meantime it won’t be forgotten because Earth passes through the dust and debris it leaves behind every year, creating the annual Perseid meteor shower.
The Swift-Tuttle comet is not a danger to the Earth (at least…not for the next 1000 years!), but it’s still very big: its nucleus is about 26 kilometers (16 miles) wide, much like the object that apparently hit the Earth 65 million years ago, destroying the dinosaurs.
This meteor shower is one of the most spectacular and significant of all those encountered by our planet in its orbit around the Sun.
When you sit back to watch a meteor shower, you’re actually seeing the pieces of comet debris heat up as they enter the atmosphere and burn up in a bright burst of light, streaking a vivid path across the sky.
This phenomenon is called the Perseid meteor shower and it gets its name from the constellation Perseus, from where the so-called shooting stars seem to come.
It is estimated that with the naked eye and in favourable conditions it will be possible to see up to 100 meteors per hour impacting with the Earth’s atmosphere at a rate of about 59 kilometres per second, causing about 20 kilometre long light trails.
All fantastic, and many of you (I hope) have appreciated my little lesson of astronomy.
But…what does St. Lawrence have to do with the Perseids? And why do we need to make a wish?
The celestial event, first observed in 36 ad, falls right near the date when we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, burned alive on a blazing gridiron on the 10th of August 258 a.d.
According to the legend Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo), as the church of Rome’s librarian and archivist, was thought to have a list of all the members of the early church and their hidden treasures. On August 8, in year 258, two days after the Emperor Valerian executed the Pope and deacons, he ordered Lorenzo to produce all the Vatican’s wealth. But on this day, August 10, Lorenzo arrived to the palace with all the diseased, orphaned and crippled Christians and boldly told the emperor that these were the true treasures of the Church. For this, he was executed.
As story goes, Lorenzo was executed by being slowly roasted on a spit. Instead of revealing the Church’s wealth, while burning on the grill, he gathered the strength to tell his executioners “Flip me over. I am done on this side.”
His role in the Roman church made him the patron saint of librarians and archivists, while his method of execution made Lorenzo also the patron Saint of cooks. And, because of his well-known and clever “Flip me over” line, some also consider him the patron saint of comedians. Therefore, August 10, is the day to celebrate those in all these professions, but more importantly, those lucky enough to be named Lorenzo!
In any case, due to this legendary coincidence, the shooting stars that occur on the night of St. Lawrence are said to represent the tears shed by the Saint during his torture, that drift eternally in heaven only to descend on Earth on this day. Hence the popular belief that for all those who remember the pain of the Saint, by watching his “tears” they will see their wish come true.
To best see the Perseids, go to the darkest possible location and lean back to observe as much sky as possible directly above you. According to the expeters, the best time to look for meteors is in the pre-dawn hours, and falling stars are more likely to be seen in the Northern Hemisphere this time of the year, because the phenomenon reaches its peak in mid-August.
Images from Web – Google Research