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Sunday November 18, 2001, 03:20

There is something about sitting outside, waiting for shooting stars that sends shivers down my spine. Quite unlike anything else in the world, the shooting star always makes me feel a little more giddy, a little bit more alive. I'm not really sure what it is, whether it's the fleetingness of the moment, the feeling of having snatched something away from the grasps of time or simply the magic of reliving a childhood nursery rhyme.

Something streaks by just out of the corner of my vision. Did I see it, or did I just see the remains of it, a trail of light burned into my retina for a split second? But a few seconds after sitting down out here, bundled up in jacket and hood, right in front of me shot a streak of light, from here a mere inch or so long, racing across the sky.

Astronomical events are generally relegated to the back rooms of observatories where number-crunchers and star enthusiasts examine charts and computer readout, stare into telescopes and wait for a single, normally visually insignificant event. But when parties are organized to go traipsing out into Central Park at five in the morning, something funny is at hand (or is that afoot?). The Leonids have come to down and, for the first time ever, I actually care enough to go outside, shiver my tail off, and consider the possibility that I might catch a glimpse or so of the sky being lit up by flaming balls of comet dust.

There went another one. So quick. I simply glanced up, caught sight of it and before I could even register that it was, in fact, a meteor, it was gone. Brilliant and white against the orange glow of the city below, I can only imagine what these might look like, far from the glow of the street lamps, hundreds of them (we hope) filling the pre-dawn sky.

It's like the Super Bowl of astronomy here. The normally uncaring, unresponsive public, ignoring the work of astronomers the remaining years between events like this, come out and watch as the skies awaken on something different from the normal autumn fare. So rarely do we scan the night, searching for the shooting star, relying instead on fate or luck to happen to be looking skyward as that moment of brilliance passes by. But tonight, tonight is a guaranteed sure thing (or so we are led to believe).

The place to be, where all the cool kids hang out, will be bundled up, necks extended, heads tilted back, looking up, waiting for some magic.

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