Perseid meteor shower offers new twist on family screen time

The Perseid meteor shower is expected to peak on the evening of August 12. The Perseid meteor shower is a wonderful way to get your family away from screens and into the outdoors. 

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The Perseid meteor shower is sparked every August when the Earth passes through a stream of space debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. Here, a meteor streaks past stars in the night sky in Tecate in Baja California August 12, 2010.

In case you missed it yesterday, the Earth gets treated again tonight to one of the most enjoyable and professionally produced light shows around, the annual Perseid meteor shower.

Named for the constellation Perseus (the Medusa-slaying Greek mythological hero), the Perseid is a meteorite shower produced by little pea-sized bits of space rock that burst across the sky at a rate of 60-70 flashes an hour.

The meteorites come from the debris tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, and despite their small size they can generate such intense light thanks to the speed with which they enter the upper atmosphere: nearly 134,000 mph.

Modern "screen time" – time spent in front of televisions or computers or iPads – may have its closest ancient-times analogue with sitting around an outdoor fire, telling stories, reciting lyric poems, and watching the comings and goings of all the stars and planets.

Most modern humans look up into the night sky and see a random spray of white dots (if they see anything at all, thanks to light pollution); the ancients saw the machinery of the heavens, depicting the motions of the gods, aiding in navigation and calendar-keeping, and foretelling events to come.

The Perseid meteor shower, then, is sort of a unique chance to enjoy a different kind of screen time, to sit down in a lawn chair with your kids, share a thermos of lemonade or hot chocolate, and talk a bit about what's going on in the sky.

It's a gateway adventure, stoking curiosity and helping no doubt-disinterested children get a little snapshot of a universe far larger and older than themselves, the sort of perspective we could all use a little bit more of to maintain our humility and remember the true extent of our problems versus the larger picture.

It's also a gateway to science, which is premised on observation and theories, and a constant struggle to explain the "hows" and "whys" of natural events in a way that is consistent and withstands scrutiny.

My own memories of watching the sky relate to my father, who would haul a big, semi-professional telescope up from the basement once or twice a summer, and locate bits of the sky that me and my brother might be interested in: the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the surface of Mars, or, most simply and stunningly, the incredible cratered face of the Moon, a wildly surprising and engaging visit with a seemingly buttoned down and everyday friend.

Stuff like this stokes curiosity in very good ways, and a couple levels of knowledge about events like the Perseid are easily accessible to parents thanks to a host of well-written and professionally maintained websites about astronomy including Astronomy.com and the Astronomy Picture of the Day. And if you're eager to get started, check out sites like Space.com – it stays on top of observable astronomical events like tonight's (visually) close encounter between Venus and the Moon.

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