The sign

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending July 20, 2013

“I’m sorry we haven’t seen any meteors tonight, Tim.” The lady put her arm around the boy as they both looked at the sky. “You just never know sometimes. I’ve seen some when I didn’t expect to and I never saw any at all when there was supposed to be a shower.”

“Aw, that’s okay Grandma,” Tim answered. “I’ve had fun listening to you talk about the stars. Which one is the one you said it lit up the World’s Fair?”

“It’s that one right there,” she said, raising her arm to point to an orange dot. “It’s called Arcturus. In 1933, when there was a World’s Fair in Chicago, people thought it was 40 light years away. The last World’s Fair in Chicago was 40 years before, so they thought it would be good to hook up light sensors to telescopes at several observatories and point them at the same point in the sky where Arcturus would pass. Light they thought was as old as the last World’s Fair triggered the sensors to send currents to Chicago and switch on all the lights!”

“What’s that next to it?” Tim inquired.

“That’s Jupiter. Next time, let’s bring your dad’s binoculars and we can look at its moons.”

“Grandma,” Tim’s voice became serious, “How long have you been learning about the stars?”

“My whole life.”

“Oh, Grandma,” Tim worried, “How will I ever learn all that you know?  You’re already seventy-eight years old and you won’t live until I’m seventy-eight to teach me.”

The woman laughed as her arm pulled Tim close, “You’ll learn the same way I learned. By listening to other people’s stories, by reading, by watching TV shows about them. The best thing though is when you tell other people. You’ll tell Jimmy, if he’s interested.”

Tim didn’t want to think about trying to teach his pesky little brother anything. The boy couldn’t hold attention to any subject more than a few seconds. And Jimmy always interrupted with questions that showed he wasn’t listening anyway.

The woman continued, “You know, you just made me think about something I read a long time ago. I don’t remember which culture believed this. Maybe it was an American Indian tribe. They believed that when you see a meteor, you’re seeing a signal from someone who has died telling you they’re safe in the afterlife.”

“Is that true, Grandma? Can people do that?”

“I’ll tell you what. After I die, if I can, I’ll nudge a little space rock into the atmosphere when I know you’re watching.”

Tim thought a moment and wanted to know “How will I know it was you?”

“I don’t know. But I have a feeling you will.”

*   *   *   *   *

“It’s cold. Let’s go in,” Jimmy said to his big brother.

“Go in if you want to,” commanded Tim. But he knew Jimmy would stay.

“How can it be cold? It’s summertime.”

“I don’t know. It just happens sometimes at night. It’s probably not that cold. You’re just used to it being hot in the daytime. And the sun’s not shining to warm you up.” Tim sounded authoritative. “Next time, why don’t you wear that jacket Grandma gave you for Christmas?”

“That’s too big,” said Jimmy.

“I doubt it,” Tim assured him. “You must have grown into it by now.”

“Do you think Grandma would be mad at me for not wearing it yet?”

“No. She always bought clothes for us a size or two too big so we would grow into them. If she bought us stuff that fit, we wouldn’t have gotten to wear them very much.”

“What’s that one?” Jimmy asked, pointing to one of the dots above them. He had picked a blue one.

“Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky. People used to think it’s possible to see stars in the daytime from the bottom of a well shaft or a smokestack, but it’s been tried with that one and—“

“Whoa!” cried Jimmy as a meteor streaked right next to the star. “What was that?”

“A meteor,” answered Tim. “Or a shooting star. It happens when a piece of space dust or a space rock enters—“

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Yeah, if you stay out long enough any night, you’ll see—“

“I didn’t know they’re blue.”

“Most of them are yellow or white. That one’s unusual.”

“Wow! Isn’t that funny? We were just talking about Grandma, then about that star, then that shooting star showed up. Blue was her favorite color. She must have liked that star. I bet she would have liked seeing that meteor with us.”

Jimmy kept talking, but Tim tuned it out for a moment. He thought of an unsuccessful night of meteor watching years before and one of the stories Grandma told him. Then Tim’s attention returned to what Jimmy was saying.

The younger boy said, “I miss Grandma. But sometimes I can’t believe she died. Sometimes I feel like she’s still here.” Then he stopped talking as though someone had finally shut off the running spigot of words.

Tim sounded like he had something in his throat when he answered, “Me too, Jimmy. Me too.”