Science gal

When you wish upon a Geminid.

Photo from by Gregor Srdog-Marino Tumpic,
Sarsoni near Rijeka, Croatia, Dec. 12, 2020Wairarapa

Last Monday night while walking our doggie, I happened to look up into the clear, dark almost-winter sky ... and a giant shooting star streamed past. I yelped! And scared the bejeezus out of my husband, who looked at me with such fear and concern, thinking--he told me later--that we were about to be attacked by a falcon. (I won’t get into the details of ... well, okay, this was sort of a delayed post-traumatic reaction to a story about falconry we’d half-heard on NPR a few mornings before, after which he dreamed falcons were diving at us. I think this fear of urban falcon attacks has mostly passed.)

I felt badly that my razor-sharp reflexes failed me at that moment (it was
cold out there) so instead of yelping something useful like “Omigosh LOOK!” and directing his attention to the stellar streak above us, I uttered some sort of ominous death howl which gave him terrifying flashes of us about to be hopelessly mutilated by bird talons. And because of that he missed the whole thing.

David-Harvey1Photo from by David Harvey,
Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, Arizona USA, Dec. 13, 2010

After we both caught our breath, and I reassured him there were no falcons diving at us (I was reasonably sure about that), I told him what I’d seen. That, I announced, was a Geminid! In retrospect I think it was something even cooler--a fireball--and a fine preview of things to come, for the annual Geminid meteor shower was peaking that very evening. We spent the rest of our chilly dog walk peeking cautiously up to the sky so as not to: 1) slip on the treacherously icy sidewalks while attempting to see more meteors; and 2) do anything that might catch the attention of hungry raptors.

I am a skywatcher, such as it can be done on the fringes of a city whose sodium vapor lights mask most of the Milky Way with orange glow. I am moderately conversant in the language of astronomy and space technology. And I love looking up at night and knowing
that’s the Pleiades, that’s Jupiter following the moon across the sky, that’s Venus rising in the east, that’s the International Space Station passing over. (And wait ... is that a really huge bird ...?) I don’t own a telescope (yet), but I do subscribe to e-mail updates, so usually I know some of what’s going on up there. And I get very excited about meteor showers. Who doesn’t like to see shooting stars? All those wishes!

Babak-Tafreshi2Photo from by Babak Tafreshi,
Zagros Mountains, Iran Dec. 14, 2010

The Geminids--so named because they appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini (specifically the star called Castor)--are famously active, with some estimates for this year’s shower of at least 100 meteors per hour in very dark skies. That meant even we had a good chance of seeing a few, sodium vapor glow notwithstanding.

The catch is that the best time to catch them is in the dead of night when it’s five frigid degrees and you should be tucked between your warm flannel sheets dreaming of sugarplums. Usually I sleep through meteor showers, but it so happened I woke up around 2:00 a.m. the next morning. Prime meteor viewing time! After a 30-minute internal debate between staying in my nice warm bed vs. seeing the
most spectacular meteor shower of the year that I was actually awake for (said debate making me ever more awake and alert, so falling back to sleep was out of the question), I finally bundled up and slipped out of the house.

Outside in the very cold, very quiet night (except for my boots scrunching
loudly on the crusty snow), I leaned against a tree and looked up. The sky was deep dark velvety blue, scattered with a few bright crisp constellations, most notably Orion -- a constellation so impressively huge and recognizable I can’t help but stare at it. Ah, but the trick to catching meteors is to look between the stars, at the blank dark spaces -- not easy because our eyes are drawn to all the twinkly things.

After a few minutes, I adjusted and focused on the darkness, sometimes scanning the sky, sometimes fixating on one spot. Then finally,
flit! A sliver of white sliced the sky for a second, then vanished, like the final moments of a fireworks sparkle dropping from the sky and quickly fading. Thrill! I massaged my neck for a moment, then looked up again to watch for more. I should have been in a reclining lawn chair (which we don’t have) or lying on the ground (on about 20 heated mattresses), but there was only a tree to lean against so I had to occasionally relieve my achey neck from all the upward craning.

Photo from by P-M Hedén,
Vallentuna, Sweden, Dec. 15, 2010

The Geminids are unique among meteor showers in that the source is not the usual debris-spewing ice ball commonly known as a comet. When comets swing past Earth their debris collides with our atmosphere, burning up in white streaks we call shooting stars. The Geminids emanate from an asteroid -- or, to use Nasa’s scientific term, a “weird rocky object” called 3200 Phaethon. Although occasionally suspected of accidentally killing off dinosaurs, asteroids don’t usually carry lots of debris with them, as comets do. Scientists are still trying to figure out how 3200 Phaethon creates enough celestial rubble to cause one of the busiest meteor showers each year. Nevertheless, it orbits merrily around our solar system, flinging loads of meteors through our atmosphere every December, resulting in a profusion of wishable shooting stars.

Back on Earth, I managed to catch six meteors in the space of half an hour -- some like a flicker in my peripheral vision (
was that a meteor? or just a star appearing from behind a tree branch?) and some a split-second streak (like the one in the animated photo above) that fell exactly where I happened to be looking. All of them were magical, even if they came and went in the blink of an eye. I could have watched all night but it was cold, I was tired, and they weren’t exactly flying out of Gemini at an eye-popping rate -- at least not over our house. Once inside I kept peeking out the windows hoping to see just one more. I saw three! then put myself to bed -- happy that I hadn’t missed it after all, and comforted knowing there was something special happening above us.

I’ve been tracking meteor showers through for several years now, and have been outside in the wee hours to catch only a few of them. I don’t know if it was coincidence ... or something more cosmic? ... that made me look up precisely when that fireball zipped overhead. If it hadn’t, I might not have been so willing to stand in my frozen back yard scanning the sky for flaming bits of space rock. The moon, stars and planets doing nothing at all in the sky is magic enough -- but when light shoots around quietly (or actually not so quietly -- click to hear what a meteor sounds like) in the night, I want to see it!

We may see only a fraction of the Milky Way’s full splendor in our suburban Chicago skyscape, but a good number of planets, moons, stars, comets, meteorites, asteroids and other twirling, whizzing, icy, molten, cosmic leftovers from the Big Bang manage to shine through the veil of city lights, bringing the huge and distant awesomeness of the Universe to our little planet. If we miss the rare passage of an unusually bright comet, we can look forward to a more common lunar eclipse--mark your calendars for the next one December 21, 2010.

Babak-Tafreshi4Photo from by Babak Tafreshi,
Zagros Mountains, Iran Dec. 14, 2010

There’s always something (but hopefully not man-eating falcons) to see in our skies at night -- just step outside and look up! And by the way, I made just one wish after seeing all those shooting stars, and it was for more northern lights.

As always, feel free to leave a comment.

Northern lights!

If you're eyebones are tired, try an audio version of this Northern Lights post instead!

Photo from by Christopher Picking, Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand, Nov. 8, 2004

At 11:00 p.m. on a chilly night in November, 2004, I wearily navigated my way home from a downtown wedding, tired from the evening’s merry-making. As I approached a curve in the road by Northwestern University, something caught my attention: an unusual glow of palest green in the sky over the campus. Party lights?  It was awfully bright for that.  Were they filming a movie? Normally my curiosity might have ended there and I would have continued on home, but this light seemed peculiar and out of place. In a moment it occurred to me there might be a more cosmic explanation, and I had to find out what it was. 

I swung into a nearby parking lot, working to keep my eyes on both the pavement and the sky above, and made a beeline to the far end, closest to the lake.  My hopes grew. Finally, I yanked the parking brake into place, jumped out of the car, and my wildest hopes were confirmed: over the water hung a colossal expanse of eerie green light, and I realized I was seeing for the first time in my life … the northern nights!

this is what the green expanse looked like over Lake Michigan
Photo from by R.J.Drew,
Rosley, Cumbria Northern England, Nov. 11, 2004

The motionless blaze of green was suspended like ghostly glacier in mid-air far over Lake Michigan.  Directly above me, spikes of green light shot sharply skyward almost to a point, as though I was looking up into the center of a luminescent pyramid.  To the north, the entire horizon glowed as if strung from end to end with a curtain of soft green light. 

like peering up into a luminescent pyramid
Photo from by Carol Lakomiak,
Tomahawk WI, Nov. 07, 2004

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, rarely reach as far south as Chicago. But tonight a breath-taking display filled the entire sky!  I laughed and gasped in awe, almost weeping from the joy and excitement that welled in me at seeing the auroras for the first time, and with such intensity and magnitude. When I finally calmed down, I simply stared, barely blinking as the ethereal lights morphed slowly and silently around the cloudless sky. They were unearthly, and utterly beautiful--as enchanting as Christmas lights, as mesmerizing as a hearth fire, as peaceful as a sunset. I felt energized and tranquil, bewitched and humbled.

a curtain of green light in the skyPhoto from by Chris VenHaus, Wisconsin, Nov. 8, 2004

I wanted to call everyone I knew with the news of this awesome event. I fumbled for my cell phone and dialed a friend, sputtering into her answering machine that she had to go outside
right now to see what was happening. At almost midnight on a Sunday, it was understandable that she didn’t answer her phone and I decided not to make any more phone calls.  Then I looked around the deserted lakefront -- where was everyone? Didn’t anyone know what was happening out here?  Wasn’t it on all the news stations?  How come there weren’t crowds of people taking in this celestial magic! It felt lonely not being able to share the experience with anyone, even strangers. No one seemed to be aware of it. And what if I hadn’t seen the light above the campus? I might have missed them, too.

Auroras in Elgin, Illinois!Photo from by Andrew Gillespie, Elgin, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

The brisk November wind blew through my thin jacket, and suddenly I felt cold and vulnerable on that empty campus path.  I needed to change from my party clothes and high heels into something warmer and more suitable for skywatching. Reluctantly, I left the scene and drove home, my eyes half on the road and half glued to the heavens.  I jumped into jeans, gym shoes and my down coat, then cruised through the empty midnight streets to Lighthouse Beach to catch more of the show. 

RynnePhoto from by S. M. Rynne, Zion, Illinois, Nov. 8, 2004

The mass and streaks and curtain that had hung so still in the sky earlier had shifted into a lively dance of pale glowing ribbons rippling across the sky.  Thick, wavy streams of light pulsed from one horizon to the other. I half expected thunder to accompany the lightening-like flashes, but the turbulent geomagnetic storm was soundless.  I wrapped myself in a woolly blanket and lay in the sand for a better view.  For the hour I was able to stay awake and reasonably warm I scanned the sky intently, eager to catch every last flicker. In that time, only three other spectators appeared.  “Like a camp fire in the sky!” one of them exclaimed.  But within a few they left and I was alone again. Finally, the chill and weariness in my bones called more strongly than the fascination overhead.  I hated to leave while there was even a hint of light left in the sky, but I pulled myself away from the beach and drove home.

Woodstock, IllinoisPhoto from by John Carzoli, Woodstock, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

The next day I was bursting to tell people about the northern lights here in Chicago.  Most responded with a passive, “Oh really?”  Few had ever seen them, and almost none shared my enthusiasm.  I scanned the news sites and radio reports but heard very little being discussed about the spectacle I had witnessed. I was truly puzzled.  An eye-popping and very rare display of auroras dominated our urban skyscape all night long, and it seemed no one knew about it!  Except for amateur astronomers from around the world, who had already posted dozens of spectacular photos online

KeefePhoto from by Jodie Keefe, Waverly, Minnesota, Nov. 7, 2004

I shared the story with my boss, who was raised in northern Minnesota, and she was tickled to see my excitement, sheepishly admitting the northern lights were so common in her youth that she almost stopped noticing them. I tried to imagine growing up with such nighttime magic being considered utterly ordinary.

Photo from by Andrea Francis,
Macomb, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

Ancient scientists dubbed the phenomenon of the northern lights aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and the Greek word “boreas” meaning “north wind.”   According to the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, auroras start with a “coronal mass ejection” (CME)--a disruption on our fiery sun that blasts up to a billion tons of matter away from its surface.  This matter hurls through space on the "solar wind" at thousands of miles per second.  When it meets Earth's magnetic atmosphere, the resulting “geomagnetic storm” energizes particles and gases that glow green, red and violet – the typical colors of an auroral display.  Most auroras are visible closer to the north pole (and the south pole, where they are called aurora australis). Particularly powerful geomagnetic storms occasionally push the auroras to skywatchers at lower latitudes than normal. reports that the display I saw lasted from November 7-10, 2004 and was seen in every U.S. state except Hawaii.  Photos of the display are posted at Spaceweather's November 2004 Aurora Gallery. I’m still amazed no one I know, except my brother in Madison, was even aware it happened.

in Madison, Wisconsin
Photo from by Abe Megahed,
Madison, Wisconsin (downtown!), Nov. 8, 2004

A few nights later I caught the farewell display of that multi-night performance: a pink wash in the northern sky and a faint but unmistakable green glow over Lake Michigan.  I watched for maybe half an hour, sad to see them fading away but thoroughly uplifted and transformed by having seen them at all.  The thrill of that first spectacular show will live with me forever, and I hold out hope–with help from Spaceweather e-mail alerts – that I’ll see the northern lights once again over my hometown. Luckily, according to, the arrival of northern autumn signals that aurora season is underway.

And next time I’m waking
everyone up to tell them about it.

As always, feel free to leave a comment.

The Butterflies Come.

“The Butterflies Come” is a favorite childhood story, written and illustrated by Leo Politi. It’s a gentle story about Stephen and Lucia, a brother and sister living in Monterey, California, where thousands of monarch butterflies rest each October during their southward winter migration.

As our garden grows, we're receiving more butterfly visitors. It’s always a thrill to see even the most common wildlife in our yard throughout the year -- rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, robins, cardinals, rolypoly bugs. Because of the plentiful catmint, coneflowers, roses and orange milkweed, we also see plenty of chubby bumblebees, the occasional goldfinch, and butterflies.

Butterflies Come garden shotLots of flowers in our front yard for butterflies and bees to love.

Recently, as we approached our front sidewalk after a family stroll with the pup, I halted dog and husband as quietly as I could when I saw a beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly land on a coneflower.

black swallowtail butterfly_jpgFrom the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Weldon Springs Wildlife Scrapbook.

Coneflower closeupA coneflower just like this one in our garden! In fact, it might have been this very blossom.

We frequently see monarch butterflies on our flowers (did you know the monarch is the Illinois state insect?) and those fairy-like pale yellow sulphur butterflies that flit and dance in pairs from flower to flower. Butterfly bush with beeBees and butterflies love our butterfly weed.

I feel honored when any butterfly visits the garden, because I have intentionally planted flowers they are known to enjoy. It’s gratifying to see mother nature’s creatures take pleasure from our garden. And this swallowtail was a rare and magical sight! We stood still and observed for the few moments it sipped at the flower’s sweetness, then it moved on. What a thrill! Do I ever have my camera with me when we get such an unusual visitor? Of course not. But I've decided the pleasure of seeing it with naked eye surpasses the privilege of capturing it through camera lens.

This morning, during another outing with The Pup, I spied a striking Tiger Swallowtail butterfly tasting a neighbor’s potted petunias.
tiger swallowtail butterfly_JPGFrom the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Weldon Springs Wildlife Scrapbook.

watched for a few minutes, hoping I wouldn’t creep out the homeowners if they happened to see me standing on their sidewalk staring agog in the direction of their front door. When I figured I had stared long enough, we crossed the street to admire some apricot heirloom roses (which smelled absolutely dreamy! I want me some of those) ... and the swallowtail followed! It flitted, it floated, it fleetly fleed and then flew off.

Monarchs always remind me of that dear childhood book,
The Butterflies Come, about which I'll share more later. Can you imagine seeing so many gorgeous butterflies in one place? And during October -- my favorite month!

Inside Bay Area monarchs on treeFrom “In Search of the Monarch Butterfly in Monterey” at

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere in Michoacan MexicoThe Monarch Butterfly Biosphere in Michoacan, Mexico from

Spectacular! But I’m happy with the few that bring simple enchantment to my garden.


Seeing stars.

Looking for a little nighttime thrill? If you happen to be awake very early on Wednesday morning -- say about 3:30 a.m. -- go outside to watch the Lyrid Meteor shower! Even though we don't have the darkest skies, being just outside of how-orange-can-we-make-the-night-sky Chicago, I've seen meteor showers before in this area and it's pretty darned magical! Dress warmly and bring something hot to sip. Then lay back on a lawn chair or lie down on a blanket, and point your eyeballs to the sky.

I like tracking meteor showers and other celestial events such as aurora displays (there was an amazing display that lit up the skies back in 2003, and almost everyone in the entire midwest missed it!), brighter than usual planets, International Space Station flybys, moon phases, and the like.  With the best of intentions, I get excited about meteor showers. I mark them on my calendar, and check the weather forecast in the hopes of having clear skies. Naturally they are best seen in the middle of the night when the skies are darkest and, not surprisingly, when I'm usually asleep. So I keep missing them.  Oh, you’re usually asleep in the middle of the night too? No wonder we keep missing these meteor showers!

If you don’t happen to catch any shooting stars, then you still might see a
satellite flyby of some sort on Wednesday morn. (Substitute your local zipcode at the very end of that link to see the flyby schedule in your 'hood.) Even though the flybys themselves aren’t tremendously spectacular -- really just a quiet steady light that cruises peacefully across the sky -- it’s pretty amazing to know there are people in that thing. Or you might literally see some space junk or a toolbag dropped by an astronaut. Again, mostly just specks of light traveling slowly overhead, but I am fascinated that this stuff is orbiting above us while we go about our business on the mother planet.

If you don’t happen to catch a flyby then keep an eye out for the Moon, Venus, Mars and Jupiter converging at dawn. Satisfy your inner astronomy geek at the SpaceWeather site, which has lots of great user-submitted photos of planets, satellites, and awesome pictures of the northern lights.

And if all that isn't enough for you even before you have breakfast, Wednesday is also Earth Day! Maybe you should take Wednesday off.