Of all the programs that Wendee and I enjoy on our television set, the game show Jeopardy! is one of our favorites. For a half hour each day, Wendee and I play along as the three contestants try to respond correctly to host Alex Trebek’s clues. In our tradition, if Wendee or I get a question answered, we applaud each other. It’s fun. We were saddened to learn of Trebek’s cancer diagnosis and we hope he will continue to enjoy a long life. Last month the show has been unforgettable. In his first 31 days as a contestant, James Holzhauer has earned an astonishing $2,462,216 in winnings. On the show that aired Friday, May 31, Holzhauer won $79,633.
Wendee and I particularly enjoy the astronomy clues that come up on shows like Jeopardy! Here is a clue from last Friday: “On November 12, 1833, these meteor showers were seen across all of North America, sparking the serious study of meteor showers.” Jeopardy James got it right: “What are the Leonids?!”
The Leonids are a meteor shower which occurs whenever the Earth punches its way through the sand grain sized debris left by a comet. The debris spreads out across the comet’s entire orbit about the Sun. In the case of the Leonids, when the parent comet Temple-Tuttle itself appears in the sky once every 33 years, a meteor storm, rather than a shower, sometimes occurs when meteors, or shooting stars, can fall at rates of a meteor per second. It happened in 1833, the year of the Jeopardy clue, in 1966, and somewhat less intensely over the period from 1996 to 2002.
As I watched this program, my mind harked back to our visit to Australia in 2001 where we saw 2,406 meteors scratch the sky over the course of a few hours. The display that night began as our group was relaxing on a dry lake bed. A bright shooting star appeared in the east, brightened rapidly as it soared across the sky, then disappeared in the west. Before the cheering ended a second meteor repeated the event. At the height of the show, I witnessed nine meteors appearing simultaneously. We continued to see meteors well into the morning twilight.
I have observed meteors on more than two hundred nights that began with a night at the original Jarnac cottage north of Montreal. I saw a magnificent, brilliant shooting star low in the southwest. The picture the accompanies this article is of a brilliant Lyrid that appeared to wave at me from the northern sky in late April of this year. Even though I have and use telescopes each night, perhaps my favorite observing session happens when I sit down outside, lookup, and watch the sky for these always welcome messages from space that we call meteors. Maybe someday, James Holzhauer will get to enjoy the shooting stars as well.