…continuedThe Discovery of the Perseid Meteors
As so often happens in science, others were working along the same lines independently just months apart. The 1833 Leonid storm had galvanized interest in meteors, and the time was ripe. Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian statistician and founder and director of the Brussels Observatory, had mentioned mid-August meteors very tentatively six months earlier. His attention had been called to meteors by François Arago of France, who dominated European science at the time with his skill in discerning important scientific problems and suggesting experiments to solve them. What, asked Arago in the wake of the 1833 display, constituted a shower of meteors, and what was the rate of the ordinary, everynight drizzle?
The problem was ideal for Quetelet, whose passion was statistics. He examined previous work and made observations of his own. In a speech to the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Brussels on December 3, 1836, Quetelet gave his answer: averaged over the night and year, a single observer should expect to see eight sporadic (nonshower) meteors per hour. That figure is still good today. After his speech Quetelet made a brief mention of unusual August meteors, and in his 1836 annual report of the Brussels Observatory he presented the idea timidly and almost in passing: "I thought I also noticed a greater frequency of these meteors in the month of August (from the 8th to the 15th)."
By the March 4, 1837, session of the Royal Academy of Brussels, Quetelet had accidentally found records in his observatory of exceptional meteor displays on August 10th of 1834 and 1835 to accompany the increase he had seen in 1836. He called for scientists to watch the sky on August 10, 1837.
When the following August (1839) came around, Herrick and three friends concentrated on determining the radiant of their favorite shower. They concluded that the August meteors appear to come from Perseus and were right.
But again Herrick's discovery was not the first. This time he was five years too late.