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Scientists Unravel Mystery of Whitman Meteor Poem

June 6, 2010

Astronomers say they have solved the long-standing mystery over exactly what famed poet Walt Whitman saw streaking through the sky 150 years ago.

The researchers discovered that the “strange huge meteor-procession” mentioned in Whitman’s noted collection “Leaves of Grass” refers to a rare procession of earth-grazing meteors that occurred in 1860.

“Meteor processions are so rare most people have never heard of them,” said Texas State University physics professor Donald Olson. “There was one in 1783 and a Canadian fireball procession in 1913. Those were all the meteor processions we knew of.”

Earth-grazers enter the atmosphere at low angle and appear to brush slowly and dramatically along the horizon.  They are different than meteors that appear overhead and shoot toward the horizon.

Whitman’s description had been alternately attributed to several events for years, such as:  The 1833 Leonid meteor shower, the 1858 Leonids shower and a famous 1859 fireball.

However, the timeframe the poem was written includes definite references to the Great Comet of 1860.

Olson and his team wrote about their astronomical investigation in the July 2010 edition of “Sky & Telescope” magazine.

“We went to a small research library and found old diaries of Theodore Cole, a friend of 19th century landscape artist Frederic Church, from July of 1860,” according to Honors Program student Ava G. Pope.

Church, who lived in Catskill, NY in July 1860, painted a picture entitled “The Meteor of 1860.”  This painting pictured a procession of meteors through the night’s sky.

The date enabled the team to focus their study on the time period’s newspapers, which was enough to verify the sighting of an Earth-grazing meteor during the 1860 event.

The meteor split into multiple fireballs while breaking apart in the atmosphere.  The fireballs then burned overhead in skies visible from the Great Lakes to New York State.

The New York Times, Smithsonian, and Harper’s Weekly all covered the event, with Scientific American calling it “the largest meteor that has ever been seen.”

Olson said the eyewitness accounts from town newspapers alone totaled in the hundreds and provided enough information for the researchers to extrapolate its route.

“From all the observations in towns up and down the Hudson River Valley, we’re able to determine the meteor’s appearance down to the hour and minute,” Olson said. “Church observed it at 9:49 p.m. when the meteor passed overhead, and Walt Whitman would’ve seen it at the same time, give or take one minute.”

“A really cool part is that the Catskill newspaper describes it as dividing into two parts with scintillations, exactly like the painting,” Pope added

The researchers said in a statement that the event was forgotten by the mid-20th century, despite its extreme rarity as an astronomical phenomenon and its heavy documentation in the day’s newspapers and magazines.

Image Caption: On the evening of July 20, 1860, a meteor fragmented during its nearly-horizontal passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and became a fireball procession, the subject of a painting by Frederic Church and a poem by Walt Whitman. (Image courtesy Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt)

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