Historians tell us that the Romans martyred a Christian deacon named Laurentius on Aug. 10 of the year 258 by cooking him alive on an outdoor iron stove called a gridiron. It was during this torture that Laurentius reportedly cried out, "I am already roasted on one side, and if thou wouldst have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other."
That night, as Laurentius' family and friends carried away his body, they noticed a number of bright streaks falling through the sky. They marveled at the miracle and believed that the streaks were the fiery tears of Laurentius falling from heaven. Throughout the centuries that have followed that August night, people around the world have marveled at the sight of St. Lawrence's tears every August.
We now know that the streaks of light are caused by tiny bits of space dust shed long ago by a comet named Swift-Tuttle. As they enter the Earth's atmosphere traveling 60 kilometers a second, the dust particles burn up about 60 miles over our heads. These August meteors seem to fan out from a point in the northeastern sky within the constellation Perseus, so the meteor shower is called the Perseid meteor shower.
Over the centuries, the time of peak activity has shifted from the night of Aug. 10 to Aug. 11, but some Perseid meteors can be seen for about a week on either side of that date. This year, the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 12 will give Coloradans their best view of St. Lawrence's tears, but the almost-full moon will diminish the number of meteors usually seen. But next year's Perseid Meteor Shower will occur during a new moon and should be spectacular.
The fun of meteor watching comes from never knowing when or where the next bright meteor will appear. The anticipation is thrilling! I've always likened it to the anticipation I feel while fishing, watching the bobber intently for any movement that might signal catching the next big one.
The three greatest dangers facing meteor watchers are getting too cold, fighting off pesky mosquitoes and falling asleep. If you want to plan a meteor-watching party, be prepared by dressing warm, arranging for comfortable reclined seating and having plenty of insect repellant on hand. To ward off heavy eyelids, you might want to keep a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate nearby. Then, sit back and watch the sky for St. Lawrence's tears. You never know when the sky will present the next big one!
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, and in Sky & Teles