The Earth did the Wiggle!

by Joel Pomerantz

August 24th, 2011

My mom, Joan Straumanis, arrived home in DC just in time to feel the surprising 5.9 quake. It was the first earthquake she ever felt and she had this to say about it:

Where was I during the earthquake? In the bathroom at National Airport, just after returning from Boston. Many people around me were alarmed. But to be honest, I thought it was more exciting than frightening. It was actually sort of gentle, and different from what I had imagined: more rocking than shaking, and inspiring—to think of the earth as dynamic like that.

I stayed in the airport, thinking about aftershocks and the fact that I would be better off there than in either the Metro or my brick highrise building. When I finally decided to leave, the Metro was running slow (literally, 15 miles/hour) and was rush-hour crowded because so many office workers had been sent home. The fountain park near my house was packed with hundreds of people sitting on the benches or the grass, working on laptops, reading Kindles, or just sitting. Because it was a beautiful day? Or because they felt safer there?

I found some damage in my apt—pictures askew, vases and other small items knocked down, and my childhood globe thrown to the floor (so appropriate!). The delicate glass flowers I had carefully carried home without damage all the way from the Ukraine were broken. Nothing material lasts forever.

Hope everyone is well.
Love, Joan

Wiggley line

Sounds like a perfect mix for her rite of passage—especially since she’s considering moving west. I wonder how the glass flowers collection at Harvard’s Natural History Museum fared.

We are definitely silly to take this planet for granted. Humans and other species have had mostly a very hard time here over the eons, and even if we weren’t making a mess of it, we’d be up against a scary prospectus.

There were three times in my life that I felt a bodily sense of the massive, rumbling rock we live on: the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake; witnessing a roaring, glowing, lathery lava fountain on the Big Island of Hawai’i in the 90s; and the 2001 Leonid meteor showers. The meteor shower was almost as good as seeing the whole planet from space, like on my Earth Flag, and feeling its smallness.

There's home, from spaceI recorded my feelings about the Leonids in these four dense paragraphs, written shortly afterwards:

The meteor shower! The meteor shower! Wowoowowow it was amazing! After past attempts, I was pretty pessimistic about the chances for seeing a good show, but it was superb. Allison drove her powerful but very compact car with six of us to the ridge of Panoramic Highway on the way up to Mount Tam—the same place I went for the Perseid meteor showers in about 1996. There were so many people, not just the six in our tiny car but in other cars going up there, that the Marin cops were out directing traffic in the middle of nowhere at 1:45 in the morning. Traffic was backed up for miles and the mountain roads were lined with parked cars in every conceivably parkable spot.

Even on the way there we began to see, out the car windows, amazing streaks of light across the sky. By the time we plopped our tarp down and got under our blankets, we had already seen a dozen of ’em. Once were were lying down, the true spectacle was revealed, interspersed with the wackiest falling star humor (such as singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” but with stars and not knowing what number to start at, or discussing the difficulties Orion would have with his pants once the three bright stars of his belt fell off).

There were meteors every second or so—good, long, bright ones! The percentage of spectacular ones was very high (more than half) and the percentage with glowing tails was above 90%. Some were so intense, they seemed to explode and go out with a flash at the end of their streak. Others (very few) were dim and slow with no tail. I developed the hypothesis that the slow ones (going in all different directions) were the ones being just pulled in by gravity as the earth shot past them, while the fast-burners with glowing tails (all coming from the direction of Leo) were the ones the earth’s atmosphere slammed into head-on. It’s like the difference between the raindrops that hit you when you are sitting in the bed of the pickup truck compared to the raindrops hitting the front windshield.

After watching one, two, or even up to five per second shoot across the sky around 3:00 a.m., we started realizing that the length and directions of the streaks were adhering to a pattern that made sense only from the perspective of being on a large ball flinging through space. So we changed position to take advantage of that phenomenon, wheeling around to face the southeast, where the constellation Leo was up about 40 degrees in the sky. This fried my brains on the spot, as the view was suddenly like the driving-in-a-storm model, exactly as if we were in a car looking out the front windshield at night with snowflakes streaming in our headlights, albeit at a slower pace. The streaks were all zooming out, away from the Lion, as if from a reverse “vanishing point” of origin. Thus the name of the shower: the Leonids. That is the set of stars the earth is “facing” as it wizzes through space at this time of year, in this part of its orbit around the sun. I have never before had such a sense of being on a rock moving through space! Unbelievable! This was easily the best night sky phenomenon I have experienced, even better than northern lights, moonbows, sunsets, or rotating gala event spotlights!

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