Year of Wonders

On the first truly frigid night of winter (Jan. 3-4), I set an alarm for 2 a.m. and went out to take in the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. I'm fond of meteor showers because they're so low-tech. You don't need a telescope to observe them, or even binoculars, but just the willingness to lie outside in the dark and look up.

Over-eager, I started my vigil too early. My fingers (inside mittens under blankets) froze before the first shooting stars arrived. While waiting I got reacquainted with the available constellations: the Big Dipper, from whose ladle the promised meteors would pour, Gemini standing on Orion's shoulders, and Leo, looking like a real lion, pinning Mars underfoot. The cloudless dark and absent Moon set up perfect viewing conditions.

I had the cordless phone in my coat pocket. Should the display turn spectacular, I would call a couple of not-quite-die-hards and encourage them to leave their beds. But I counted only eleven meteors in the two-plus hours I could bear the cold. The forecast had predicted as many as one hundred or more per hour. I wondered whether the friends I'd alerted in advance to these potential fireworks were also out somewhere in the night, perhaps annoyed with me for sending them on a fool's errand.

I found plenty of time to question what made me want to spend the pre-dawn hours this way, and also to realize why. Staring up at the unchanging pattern of the stars, panning for surprise, I thrilled every time a bright ball of fire materialized out of that reliable background to slide across the heavens in less than a moment.

The new year promises other meteor showers along with two major astronomical events -- the Transit of Venus in June and a total solar eclipse in November. Attendance at those sky shows will demand large investments of time and travel expense in addition to pluck, plus readiness for a different flavor of risk. No one doubts that the syzygies -- the exact planetary alignments that permit Venus to be seen crossing the Sun's face or a sector of Earth to immerse in the Moon's shadow -- will occur on schedule according to the laws of physics. The only question is, Will the local weather in any particular viewing area allow witnesses to watch the natural miracle unfold?