Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mmmmm!

The Perseids appeared through gaps in the Irish clouds this year. The meteors of mid-August are crumbs of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which sweeps around the solar system on a 130-year orbit, scattering dust along its path. Once each year the Earth plows through that dusty band.

The comet takes its name from its discoverers, the amateur comet watcher Lewis Swift, a farmer of Marathon, New York, and Horace Tuttle, a professional astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory. Swift was the first to see it, with his four-and-a-quarter inch refracting telescope attached to a platform on his barn, on the night of July 15, 1862. At first he mistook it for a previously reported comet, Comet Schmidt. Three nights later, he realized his mistake and reported his discovery. By then, Tuttle had made his observation. The two men shared the honor.

Swift was an amateur astronomer in the original sense of the word: the am- derives from the Latin word for love. What unites amateur astronomers is love of the night.

It has been suggested that the root of the Latin for love, am, had its origin in baby talk, like yum-yum or mmmm! an expression of delight. That's what propels amateur stargazers into the night when everyone else is settled down indoors. They seek the mmmm!, that special moment when the a comet reveals itself against the dark, or a meteor streaks the sky.

My dictionary of English usage says that the word amateur has acquired "a faint flavor of bungling and a strong flavor of enthusiasm." That faint flavor of bungling devalues an otherwise honorable word. Swift, certainly, was no bungler. He discovered a total of thirteen comets, although none equaled in brightness the comet of 1862. For his work with comets he was awarded a gold medal by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna. In the 1880s he was appointed director of the Warner Observatory in Rochester, New York, and granted use of the fourth largest telescope in the United States at the time. With that instrument he discovered more than a thousand nebulas, among them hundreds of distant galaxies, star systems as extensive as the Milky Way.

(Shouldn't Comet Swift-Tuttle have returned by now? More tomorrow.)