(I) At what time of day did the stars fall in 18331 (2) From what direction did they reach our atmosphere? (3) Where did they come from? (4) How did the stars get back into the sky in time for the next evening?
The latter queries can best be answered first.
Any brilliant object in the sky, of lesser apparent magnitude than the sun or the moon, is popularly called a star, be it a true star (a remote sun), a dense star cluster, a planet, a comet, or a meteor. Meteors are masses of rock or metal moving through space within the solar system to which our earth belongs as a minor planet. Some of the meteors travel singly, but many of them move in populous swarms, like flocks of birds. Because of their comparatively small size, varying from that of sand grains to a few tons, meteors remote from the earth reflect insufficient sunlight to make them visible.
When at times these single or multiple bodies approach near enough to the earth to be deflected toward its surface, they encounter the atmosphere of the earth at speeds of from ten to forty miles a second. Then the friction between the meteor, or falling star, and the air, heats the meteor to a temperature at which it emits a brilliant light, and portions of the mass are burned so as to leave a luminous trail of white-hot ashes. If the meteor is a small one, it is quite completely consumed high above the earth, and no sound is heard; but if it is a large one, a residual stony or metallic mass will reach the surface of the earth as a meteorite to become a permanent part of the earth.
Because the rocks in space, which become a meteoric shower, are all traveling together in approximately parallel paths, the appearance to an observer of such a shower is that the meteors come from the same general portion of the sky, exactly as parallel railroad rails or rows of trees or plants appear to converge in the distance toward a point. This vanishing point of perspective, as an artist would call it, is designated as the radiant, or point from which the shower of falling stars appears to radiate. The radiant for the November meteors, of 1833, was near the star Gamma Leonis, in the constellation Leo, the Lion; hence, this shower and the subsequent lesser remnants of it bear the designation Leonids. The constellation Leo dOes not rise till after midnight in mid-November ; therefore, only a few of the meteors of that shower could be seen until late in the night or toward morning.
How wonderfully accurate is the Biblical prophecy of the stars falling "unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind." 1 Eyewitnesses and historians of that day say
"[The meteors] proceeded to various distances from the radiating point, leaving after them a vivid streak of light. . . . One of the most remarkable circumstances attending this display was that the meteors all seemed to emanate from one and the same point; that is, if their lines of direction had been continued backward, they would have met in the same point, southeast a little from the zenith. . . . The point from which the meteors seemed to issue was observed, by those who fixed the position of the display among the stars, to be in the constellation Leo."2
"The morning of November 13, 1833, was rendered memorable by an exhibition of the phenomenon called shooting stars, which was probably more extensive and magnificent than any similar one hitherto recorded."
"It seemed as if the whole starry heavens had congregated at one point near the zenith, and were simultaneously shooting forth, with the velocity of lightning, to every part of the horizon; and yet they were not exhausted—thousands swiftly followed in the tracks of thousands, as if created for the occasion."
"During the three hours of its continuance, the day of judgment was believed to be only waiting for sunrise. . . . From two o'clock until broad daylight, the sky being perfectly serene and cloudless, an incessant play of dazzlingly brilliant luminosities was kept up in the whole heavens."'
Thus the stars fell abundantly on the early morning of November 13, 1833, mostly from two to six, though a few forerunners were visible as early as ten o'clock the evening before. The phenomenon was not at suppertime, as some persons have faultily recalled and reported. The stars fulfilled the prophecy of coming as unripe figs from a wind-shaken tree from an apparent radiant as portrayed by the contemporary artists and authors. They did not come from random portions of the heavens toward the observers, as some modern pictorial representations would indicate. Falling stars are meteoric stones, luminously visible in our atmosphere, and are either consumed to ashes Or fall as rocks to the earth. They do not constitute the light-giving stars of the heavens ; hence, the number of true stars is not diminished by such star showers.
As we present by voice and pen the glorious message of the signs of the soon return of the Saviour, let us adhere strictly to the specifications of the prophecies of those portentous events and to the factual details Of their literal fulfillment. These phenomena are wonderful and meaningful enough, without any exaggerated or perverted description of them. "So likewise ye, when ye see .these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand."
R. E. HOEN. [Professor of Chemistry, Pacific Union College.]
1 Rev. 6:13.
2 R. A. Devens, Our First Century (Springfield, Mass.: C. H. Nichols & Co., 1879), pp. 329-336.
3 Denison Olmstead, American Journal of Science and Arts, vol. 25 (1834), p. 363.
4 F. Reed, Christian Advocate and Journal, Dec. 13, 1833, quoted in The Great Controversy, PP. 333, 334. Devens, op. cit., pp. 329-336.