The 2001 Leonid Project

After the expenditure of hundreds of hours of time and hundreds of dollars of my money, I loaded up all the equipment and drove to the Arizona desert to watch the meteors. I arrived on Friday night and began setting up the equipment on Saturday morning. The task of pounding in the stakes, stretching the overhead wires, positioning the chairs, and laying the cables stretched through the morning and well into the afternoon. People started arriving in the late afternoon and I kept myself busy explaining observing technique to them. There was also the task of running the training videotapes for them, both to prepare them for the event and to measure their perceptual characteristics for inclusion in the final calculations. I also tested the equipment; everything checked out fine.

Meanwhile, the weather darkened the mood with a high thin overcast. All the weather predictions had promised clear skies for our area, and yet our skies were definitely unclear. Worried, I called several friends asking them to get on the net and research the weather. (A side note: I was able to use my cell phone at the site, 26 miles from the nearest cell tower. How’s that for range? Of course, the line of sight to the cell tower crossed through no trees or buildings, just one hill. We couldn’t actually see the cell tower but from our elevated position, but we could have seen it had the hill been removed.)

My friends, one of whom is a pilot with access to detailed FAA weather predictions, informed me that the weather predictions promised clear skies that night. They also determined that there was no reason to pull up stakes and go somewhere else -- every other location looked worse.

I was nervous but their assurances proved correct. After sunset, the sky opened up and we had perfect skies. Meanwhile, people at sites all around us -- southern Arizona, southern California, Nevada -- had mixed weather, with clouds in some manner hampering observations. We may have had one of the best locations in the west.

We barbecued burgers and hot dogs for the observers and the last few people dribbled in. I was exhausted, but I carried out a few last tests of the system and left everything powered up; I didn’t want to restart the equipment at H-Hour and discover something not working.

The observers all hung around the bonfire, chatting and telling jokes, while I bustled about the site, getting all the last-minute details perfect. Then, around 9:00 PM, I turned in for the night. I slept in my sleeping bag next to the computer station. I didn’t really sleep that much -- I wanted to keep a weather eye out for clouds or meteors. If the storm came early, I would arouse the others. If clouds ruined the show, I wouldn’t bother them. So I roused myself every half hour or so, gazed at the sky for a long minute, then rolled over and went back to my fitful sleep. I was awakened several times by wildlife sounds coming from 30 or 40 meters away. My brother, upon later hearing my clumsy reproductions of their noises, informed me that they were small desert pigs.

The plan had been that I would waken everybody at 1:30 if things went as expected. But at 1:00 my wife and brother showed up at my sleeping bag, wanting to get started. They had gotten up and stepped outside, and when they saw meteors, they decided that the show had begun. I wasn’t going to argue with them; they seemed too excited to accept any explanations that the rate was still low.

We got everybody up, filled them with coffee, tea, and/or hot chocolate, and went out to the site. I picked up a keypad and punched a few keys for a last-minute test -- and the system didn’t respond! It was dead.

I spent the next two and a half hours trying to revive it. I did not become flustered or angry, but I was completely focussed on the problem, so focussed that I didn’t see any meteors. Indeed, I didn’t realize at the time that I was missing the peak of the shower. I checked out every possibility with manic thoroughness. Yet somehow the problem evaded solution. I had prepared for this possibility, bringing backups of just about every component, swapping them in a sequence certain to isolate the problem, but it just wouldn’t isolate. Individually, every component was working, but as a system, it was dead.

I finally gave up at about 10:30 UT (3:30 AM local time), half an hour after the maximum. I should have given up earlier and fallen back to my tape recorder, but I made my first and only mistake: I read the time from my watch, which was still set to Pacific Standard Time, but was thinking of the shower’s schedule in terms of Mountain Standard Time. So when my watch told me it was 2:30, I thought that the peak was still a half hour away, when in fact it was already over. I had the good sense to realize that I needed to think, so I simply lay down in my sleeping bag, pulled it over my head, and in the utter darkness I contemplated my situation for five minutes, during which time nearly a hundred Leonids roared overhead unseen.

I decided to record whatever I could with the tape recorder. I fished it out of the equipment box, but could not find the power cable -- somehow it had been left behind. OK, fine, I’ll stuff batteries into the battery compartment. But no, the battery compartment required C-cells. I had brought along plenty of D-cells, AA-cells, and 9V batteries, but no C-cells. Arg! Perhaps I could just write the data down. I grabbed my clipboard and ballpoint pen -- and the pen wouldn’t write!

That was the low point of the night. Then somebody in the group volunteered a flashlight with two C-cells in it. I stuffed those in and Jim Foster recalled that an AA battery is the same length as a C-cell, so I grabbed two AAs and stuffed those in, supporting them with paper towels. Somehow the jury-rig worked and I had a working tape recorder.

I announced to the group that I would need complete silence during my recording, undiplomatically emphasizing the word "complete". Then I lay down and began recording altitudes and azimuths of Leonids. I was able to do this for 34 minutes before my hands froze up and I took a short break. When I resumed, I simply recorded times of fall. But then the tape ran out and I just gave up. In my 44 minutes of observing time, I recorded about 450 meteors. This was about an hour after the peak. Statistical analysis of my observations indicates that the act of recording altitudes and azimuths depressed my coefficient of perception by about 20%.

As twilight began to intrude, I gave up, went inside, and fell asleep. By the time I awoke, a number of people had already departed and the others had nearly finished disassembling my equipment. I packed the van and we departed about noon.

We drove home by way of Hoover Dam (big), Las Vegas (loved the ballet!), Death Valley, the ancient bristlecone pine tree forest, Mammoth Lakes, and the ghost town of Bodie (much bigger than I had imagined). Along the way, I went on a rapacious rampage of kleptogeology, dragging away dolomite, absconding with obsidian, filching feldspar, ravaging rhyolite, and slinking away with slate. I pillaged, plundered, and pilfered, leaving behind me a despoiled wilderness bereft of rocks. All over the eastern Sierra, rocks tremble at the sound of my name.

Upon my return, I went through my equipment in more detail and found the cause of the failure: a defective 74HCT138 integrated circuit. This little chip had worked perfectly during the numerous tests. My guess is that it was zapped by static electricity sometime during the evening. How that happened, I cannot know, but I am certain from my tests that it was in fact zapped. Interestingly enough, it was one of the very few items for which I had no backup; even if I had identified the problem, I could not have fixed it.

Thus, my project was a complete failure because of one failed chip. Oh well, that’s the way the meteor falls. Better luck next time. In the meantime, I have figured out a way to possibly test my hypothesis using data from other observers. It’s presented here. And one of the observers, Rick Smith, has prepared his own first-person account of the experience. It’s