Tonight, the Perseid Meteor Shower reaches its peak and continues tomorrow night, but the whole shower, a result of Earth passing through the Swift-Tuttle comet's debris, runs from July 23 to August 24. The Perseids are mainly visible in the Northern Hemisphere, from around midnight, near the Y-shaped constellation of Perseus, although I've found looking eastwards generally and directly above seemed to work. I recommend them: last year I saw some amazing falling stars during the Perseids Shower, including what is called a Fireball.
Look north-east around midnight. Image: NASA.
NASA has a report here, which mentions that the planets Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent Moon are aligned tonight in tight conjunction prior to the Shower. The report also tells you where you should look.
If you are stuck in the city and can't see the sky, above is a youtube of the Perseids from 2007. There is a link to Jack Horkheimer's latest astronomy guides here. Space.com reports:
The first records of the shower date back to 36 A.D., with a Chinese account of "more than 100 meteors" being sighted one early morning. This year's peak hourly rate is expected to be on the low end of the range, likely around 50. The best times to watch will be the overnight hours on Aug. 11/12 and Aug. 12/13, astronomers say. The peak is forecast to occur Aug. 12, between 14h and 17h UT, or Universal Time, said Arlt. Unfortunately, that's 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT. Observers in Hawaii should see the peak under dark skies in the very morning of August 12, and parts of eastern Asia will see the peak fall during night hours, Arlt said. 'Those who have dry transparent air may be able to see up to 50 Perseids an hour,' during the peak, said Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society. Hazy humid conditions would reduce that count. A dozen or more per hour could also be visible a night or two before the peak, and then a night or two after. The shower continues through about Aug. 22, by which time it will have wound back down to just 1 to 2 meteors per hour.Do you have any unfulfilled dreams that you need to petition the heavens for?
Image: Despair Inc.
One myth from Ptolemy about wishing upon a falling star describes an image of the gods, normally uncaring and unable to hear petitions from humans. Legend has it that meteor showers are caused by the gods' occasional curiosity in human affairs. They peek over the edge of heaven and knock some stars down. In that instant, the rift between their realm and this one is momentarily opened, and they can hear anything you say to them. But you have to state the wish out loud while the falling star is still flying through the sky. When it disappears, the opportunity is lost.
Asteria, Titan Goddess of Shooting Stars. Image: Theoi.com.
The Greek goddess of shooting stars was Asteria. According to Theoi.com, she was the Titan "of the oracles and prophecies of night, including prophetic dreams, the reading of the stars (astrology), and necromancy. She was the mother of the goddess Hekate by Perses (the Destroyer). After the fall of the Titanes, Asteria was pursued by the god Zeus. She fled his advances, transforming herself into a quail and leaping into the sea where she became the island of Delos." The Shooting Star blog has more:
The Greeks ... fathomed shooting stars to be rising or falling human souls, while Jews and Christians believed them to be fallen angels or demons. Aristophanes, a Greek [playwright] ... had a more fancy imagination. According to him, shooting stars were “souls of poor people, drunkenly walking home after they had dinner at a rich star.” Even contemporary culture is abound with superstitions related to shooting stars. In Chile, for instance, when you spot a shooting star, you must pick up a stone in the same moment, while making a wish. (Quick thinking, I must say.) If you’re in the [Philippines], you must tie a knot in your handkerchief instead. (Too bad if you don’t carry one around.)Others say that falling stars are bad luck, and somewhere in between they are entertaining balls of flaming space dust.