Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 1.djvu/399

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AUGUST, 1872



WHOEVER has observed the heavens on a clear night with some amount of attention and patience, cannot fail to have noticed the phenomenon of a falling star, one of those well-known fiery meteors which suddenly blaze forth in any quarter of the heavens, descend toward the earth, generally with great rapidity, in either a vertical or slanting direction, and disappear after a few seconds at a higher or lower altitude. As a rule, falling stars can only be seen of an evening, or at night, owing to the great brightness of daylight; but many instances have occurred in which their brilliancy has been so great as to render them visible in the daytime, as well when the sky was overcast as when it was perfectly cloudless. It has been calculated that the average number of these meteors passing through the earth's atmosphere, and sufficiently bright to be seen at night with the naked eye, is not less than 7,500,000 during the space of twenty-four hours, and this number must be increased to 400,000,000 if those be included which a telescope would reveal. In many nights, however, the number of these meteors is so great that they pass over the heavens like flakes of snow, and for several hours are too numerous to be counted. Early in the morning of the 12th of November, 1799, Humboldt and Bonpland saw before sunrise, when on the coast of Mexico, thousands of meteors during the space of four hours, most of which left a track behind them of from 5 to 10 in length; they mostly disappeared without any display of sparks, but some seemed to burst, and others, again, had a nucleus as bright as Jupiter, which emitted sparks. On the 12th of November, 1833, there fell another shower of meteors, in which, according to Arago's estimation, 240,000 passed over the heavens, as seen from the place of observation, in three hours.

Only in very rare instances do these fiery substances fall upon the