THE MONTH DURING WHICH THINGS FIZZLED

DIANA HANNIKAINEN

May 2014 – especially the end of May – was a big month for things that went pffffffttt... celestially speaking, at least.

First of all, we had the much-anticipated Camelopardalids. This was heralded as a new meteor shower, supposedly spawned by the periodic comet 209P/LINEAR. There was a lot of hype, both on the internet and local news stations that urged all of us to set our alarms for approximately 2 am on the morning of Saturday May 24, so as to catch the peak of the shower. There were breathless predictions of up to 1,000 shooting stars per hour. There were live feeds from cameras pointed towards the skies from all manner of sources, including NASA. Some of us were awake (or still up) even earlier, eagerly awaiting the spectacle of the year/decade/century (you take your pick). We had been warned, seeing as this was a first amongst meteor showers, that we might be disappointed, but being astronomers everybody was optimistically convinced that the Camelopardalids were going to be spectacular. So we dutifully trundled outdoors, some of us only onto our patios, others further afield, some of us with a eupeptic glass of wine, others with high-tech equipment. But we were all united in our passion: Catch a falling star....

What ensued was a disappointing no-show. Club members only need head to the club Yahoo feed to read comments such as these from Sam Storch (amongst others).

"The widely anticipated 'new' meteor shower was a bust. Total of one mag 3 meteor below and west of the radiant and one spectacular fireball which came from the south, and thus was not part of the shower. From home, I observed from 1:55 AM to 3:40 AM, and I personally fed many insects."

I think this sums up the anticlimax we all felt, those who actually were outdoors that night, necks craned to the skies, and those who simply were eager to read all about it, either because it would be difficult for them to be awake during those hours, or because they lived in time zones inaccessible to the projected shower.

But if you really want to be bummed about something, then what ensued only a few days later was a major fizzle.

On May 27, 2014, the Twittersphere and just about everything else on the internet went into a frenzy over what was thought to be (prematurely, as it turned out) a possible gamma-ray burst in Andromeda. Wow! One of the most energetic explosions known to humankind, right here, in our own cosmic neighborhood... Too good to be true... and sadly, it was. However, the unfolding saga of what came to be known as #GRBm31 is an excellent lesson as to how science – in particular astronomy – works.

Head over to Steinn Sigurdsson's blogpost to read an excellent moment-by-moment account of how the excitement peaked, came crashing down, and the philosophical afterthought, that hey, it could have happened, and that's why science is so exciting: http://scienceblogs.com/catdynamics/2014/05/28/a-false-alarm-in-m31-grbm31/?fb_action_ids=10152833949112802&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_ref=.U4ZrY9CYQgl.like&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582