I met a woman in a lay-by outside Dorking last night. She was already there when I arrived and from the moment I stepped out of the car it was clear that we were both looking for the same thing. What drove us to be there it's hard to say, be it some desire to push beyond the mundane or some dark character flaw that brings people like us to lay-bys on dark country roads on a cold December night.
Oi! Behave! We are both hobbyist astronomers and we were there to see the Geminid meteor shower that occurs at this time of year. She'd turned up on a whim having seen the clear sky which was defying the weather forecasters dire prognostications and I'd been planning to go since the weather radar showed the rain passing by and leaving a clear sky behind it and I'd chosen that place from looking up good spotting locations on the Stargazers Lounge astronomy site. Although we'd never met before and despite it being coincidence that had caused our paths to cross we were soon chatting like we were old friends, partly about Messier objects, Global Catalogue numbers and how bright Orion was but also through her parents recent separation, the end of her own seven year relationship and her new job in Salisbury which she would start in January. I found myself talking about my family and my battle with cancer, a subject initiated by her saying that her Grandfather had died of pancreatic cancer 24 hours after being diagnosed at the beginning of the year. She said that from her experience it was a popular spot for star-gazing but nobody else turned up while we were there and she said that was probably due to a combination of car problems, colds and the grim weather forecast. We rarely looked at each other in the dark while we talked but kept our eyes fixed on the sky and were periodically rewarded with the fleeting trail of a speck of stardust spectacularly hurtling to its fiery end against the atmosphere many miles above us, much to our delight. I feel slightly bad that today I couldn't pick her out of an identity parade if you held a loaded gun to my head but then I find that meteorites are mesmerising things.
For some reason if you give me something to do, for example write a blog post, some kind of attention-deficit thing will kick in and within minutes I'll be distracted by something else much less important, but fleetingly engaging. Profound speeches, famous rock bands, impressive presentations, I've tired of them all, but if you ask me to sit out in my garden or a cold field for an hour or two staring at a patch of sky in the hope of seeing a fleeting astronomical event then I have no problem. I never have understood quite how that works, and nor do I expect to...
I remember when I was much younger my Dad taking me to cricket matches after school and while he would sit and chat with his friends they would keep half an eye on the field of play and it seems to me that astronomy is similar in many ways in that it's a social endeavour where rain also stops play but instead of men in white outfits to look at you have most of the universe! Did you know that 92% of your body mass is made up of the debris of ancient stars? At the beginning of the universe only Hydrogen, Helium and Lithium were present so any element heavier that than came into being in the heart of an ancient star and was ejected when it died. Think about that the next time you look up into a night sky or wonder about the meaning of life.
In the end some high and wispy clouds eventually came to spoil our fun, in combination with a particularly bright moon, so we packed our kit away and said our goodbyes. We may meet again on the hills above Dorking but probably not, though I'm certainly happier for having been there on that cold December evening. I will remember it.
The Geminids peak tonight and if you miss those then the Quadrantids start on Dec 28, peaking around Jan 3rd/4th.