“I think I saw one,” said RocketteGirl, with about as much enthusiasm as an 8-year-old can muster after a long day of drama camp, tae kwon do, and cheering on the US Olympic swim team. Her little sister, Lightning McQueen, already bailed on us 10 minutes earlier.
It was going on 10:30 p.m., Thursday, August 11. The night the annual Perseid meteor shower was to peak with an unusually high frequency of “shooting stars.” We let the girls stay up late, first to cheer on their favorite swimmer Katie Ledecky, and then to view what astronomers and meteorologists had promised us for weeks would be a spectacular light show.
It was a perfect night for viewing. We sat on our back patio chairs, RocketteGirl on my lap and Lightning McQueen next to us. The three of us were looking up and squinting.
According to the experts, to improve our chances of seeing the meteor fireworks, we should have allowed our eyes up to 45 minutes to fully adjust to the night sky. But with my little Nerds and their attention spans sinking fast, we didn’t have that kind of time. The meteors would have to cooperate with an already-late bedtime schedule.
Unfortunately, they did not.
With Lightning McQueen already down for the count, RocketteGirl stuck it out for another 10 minutes. She asked a few questions that allowed me to try and explain the few things I knew about meteors and the Perseids, in particular. How they were millions of small, rocky fragments thrown from a gigantic comet, known as Comet Swift-Tuttle, creating a “tail” as it orbits the sun. Each year, the comet comes near Earth’s orbit around this same time, and meteors from the comet’s tail enter and burn up in our atmosphere.
I also explained a couple more reasons why, even though this was supposed to be the best night for viewing, we still might not see much. Like how we were pretty close to downtown Washington, D.C., and the city light pollution can affect our ability not only to see stars, but also meteors burning across the night sky. Or how experts said peak hours for viewing would be after midnight on the East Coast.
As soon as she glimpsed what may or may not have been a meteor flash across a patch of sky she’d been scanning, RocketteGirl quietly slid off my lap and disappeared back inside. I soon joined her.
Around 1 a.m., long after my wife and kids were asleep, I slipped back outside to the patio. After 45 more minutes of looking up and shifting in my chair, I saw a grand total of three meteors flare across the sky. But that was enough. Each fleeting streak stole my breath and prompted an almost involuntary “wow!”
As brief and disappointing as our viewing party had been, I counted three silver linings. First, both my girls were excited about witnessing science in action (for a while, anyway). Second, at least one of us saw something. And third, whether or not that was true, I got to spend 30 quiet, thoughtful minutes bonding with my Nerds.
The experience reminded yet again, that my kids – and maybe your kids, too – need to take things at their own speed.
Yes, they were excited to see the meteor shower, but maybe not as much as I was or for the same reasons. Yes, they’re nerds, but I can’t expect them to be nerdy about every subject, just like I can’t expect them to like everything I like. Ironically, we Nerd parents are pretty much required to be into and patient with everything our kids are into. And in my first post here at Raising Nerd, I explained how I eagerly got on board with this requirement.
So, I see it as my job as a Nerd parent to provide the access to and maybe even a little context during cool activities and events like the Perseid meteor shower. And it’s important to give them lots of opportunities to explore so they eventually find the things they like.
During our time under the stars, one thing I decided not to discuss with the kids was the possibility of Comet Swift-Tuttle ever impacting the Earth or what such an impact would mean for life as we know it.
I figured they’d had enough excitement for one day.