It turns out Walt Whitman was right about those giant meteors
A poem in Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' describes a 'strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads.' Researchers now believe they know what he was referring to.
The long-standing mystery over exactly what famed poet Walt Whitman saw streaking though the sky 150 years ago has apparently been solved by a team of bookworm astronomers.Skip to next paragraph
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Following a trail that began with a 19th century painting and led to hundreds of newspaper reports, the researchers discovered that the "strange huge meteor-procession" mentioned in Whitman's noted collection "Leaves of Grass" indeed refers to a rare procession of earth-grazing meteors that occurred in 1860.
"Meteor processions are so rare most people have never heard of them," said Texas State University physics professor Donald Olson, who worked on the investigation. "There was one in 1783 and a Canadian fireball procession in 1913. Those were all the meteor processions we knew of."
Earth-grazing meteors unmasked
Earth-grazers enter the atmosphere at low angle, from the point of view of a given skywatcher, and appear to scoot slowly and dramatically along the horizon. They're much different than meteors appearing overhead and shooting swiftly toward the horizon
For years, Whitman's description had been alternately attributed to several events, including: The 1833 Leonid meteor shower, the 1858 Leonids shower and a famous 1859 fireball. [More Leonid meteor shower photos.]
But the timeframe of the poem, which is titled "Year of the Meteor," listed under "1859-1860," and includes a definite reference to the Great Comet of 1860, conflicted with the 1833 sighting.
Evidence for the1858 sighting was also weakened when the date of a separate meteor shower observation by Whitman was corrected from 1858 to 1833. Additionally, a fireball is only one blaze in the sky, while a meteor procession exhibits multiple blazing objects.
Olson and his team describe their astronomical investigation in the July 2010 edition of "Sky & Telescope" magazine.
Painting shows the way
A single painting by 19th century landscape artist Frederic Church was the happenstance clue in solving the puzzle behind Whitman's reference. Titled "The Meteor of 1860" and picturing a procession of meteors through the night's sky, the work was glimpsed by Olson on the back cover of an art exhibition catalog.