Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Other Meteor of 1860

We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring. — Carl Sagan

Not to be confused with Thomas Clingman’s “meteor of 1860” is another “meteor of 1860” known to Whitman and Church.

The Meteor of 1860, by Frederic Church, 1860.

The northern meteor, falling just a couple of weeks before the one in Asheville, was the subject of some attention in 2010, when physics professors verified that an actual event had inspired Walt Whitman’s poem, Year of Meteors (1859-60). An essential clue for the researchers was Frederic Church’s 1860 painting which they believed fit Whitman’s description perfectly.

More on the 2010 announcement:

Frederic Church (1826-1900), landscape painter of the Hudson River School, was watching the Catskills evening sky of July 20, 1860, and witnessed a string of fireballs, spawned by a rare Earth-grazing meteor procession. Rare indeed! It was one of only four such meteor processions viewed and listed during recorded history.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was writing “... strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads" in his poem Year of Meteors (1859-60). Over time, the inspiration for Whitman's poem was forgotten, until the Texas State University physicists cracked the case.

Year of Meteors [1859-60]
by Walt Whitman

Year of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective some of your deeds and signs,
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad,
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the
scaffold in Virginia,
(I was at hand, silent I stood with teeth shut close, I watch'd,
I stood very near you old man when cool and indifferent, but trembling
with age and your unheal'd wounds you mounted the scaffold;)
I would sing in my copious song your census returns of the States,
The tables of population and products, I would sing of your ships
and their cargoes,
The proud black ships of Manhattan arriving, some fill'd with
immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold,
Songs thereof would I sing, to all that hitherward comes would welcome give,
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, young
prince of England!
(Remember you surging Manhattan's crowds as you pass'd with your
cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;)
Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was
600 feet long,
Her moving swiftly surrounded by myriads of small craft I forget not
to sing;
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;)
Of such, and fitful as they, I sing--with gleams from them would
gleam and patch these chants,
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good--year of forebodings!
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange--lo! even here one
equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?

An 1888 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica mentions the meteor:

...[it] was seen in the evening of July 20, 1860, by persons in New York, Pennsylvania, New England, etc, which first appeared over Michigan, at a height of about 90 miles. The light was so brilliant as to call thousands from their houses. It passed east-southeast, and over New York State, at a height of about 50 miles, broke into three parts which chased each other across the sky. At New York city it was seen in the north, while at New Haven it was in the south. At both places the apparent altitude was well observed, and its true height proved to be about 42 miles above the earth's surface between the two cities. It finally disappeared far out over the Atlantic Ocean. 'It is doubtful whether any one heard any sound of explosion that came from this meteor, and no part of it is known to have reached the ground. The velocity was at least 10 or 12 miles per second, or fifty times the velocity of sound. These two meteors were evidently of the same nature as those which have furnished so many stones for our museums, except that the one was so friable that it has given us but one known fragment, while the other was only seen to break in two, not even a sound of explosion being known to have come from the meteor.

Next to the stone-producing meteor is the fireball, or bolide, which gives generally a less brilliant light than the former, but in essential appearances is like it. The meteor of July 20, 1860, above described, though unusually brilliant, was one of this class, and represents thousands of bolides which have been seen to break in pieces. The bolides leave trains of light behind them just as the stone meteors do; they travel with similar velocities both apparent and actual, and in all respects exhibit only such differences of phenomena as would be fully explained by differences in size, cohesion, and chemical constitution of stones causing them.


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