Without meteorites, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. As writer Maria Golia explains in her new book, Meteorite: Nature And Culture, meteorite bombardments during Earth’s infancy may have delivered signature ingredients, like amino acids, to the primordial soup, contributing to life as we know it. Meteorites have helped us determine the age of the Earth, contributed to mass extinctions, and even turned the things they struck into “impactifacts” prized by collectors. Yet for centuries, their origins in outer space were denied because they undermined the idea of an ordered universe—and were mostly witnessed by illiterate peasants working in the fields.
Talking from her home in Cairo, the New Jersey-born author describes why it took so long for meteorites to be accepted by scientists; why a punk musician became a hard-core meteorite fan; and how a rust bucket car in Peekskill, New York, made its owner rich when it was struck by a meteorite.
Most readers will be amazed, as I was, to learn from your book that “an impact event with the energy of Hiroshima occurs around once a year.” How much danger are we in?
This is a source of much controversy. We have to thank the atmosphere for our existence because it is tremendously protective. It burns away many of the masses that might fall to Earth as it’s spinning through space in what some people call a cosmic shooting gallery.
How dangerous is it? Think about what happened in February 2013. NASA had been tracking asteroids for some time but because there are billions of them spinning in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, we don’t know exactly where everything is. They track the ones that the earth might intercept, so-called “near Earth objects.”
In February 2013, one was being closely watched, even though it was many thousands of kilometres away, but close enough that it actually passed between satellites orbiting Earth. On that same day, a fireball exploded over Siberia in a place called Chelyabinsk, which caused quite a lot of damage but no one saw coming. So, as much as we know, there’s only so much we can know.
Like many people, I suspect, I confuse meteorites with meteors and asteroids. What’s the difference?
Many things may fly through the air. A meteor could simply be a piece of dust from the tail of a comet, like when we have meteor showers. A meteor refers to the streak of light we see as they are incinerated in the upper atmosphere. An asteroid is a large rocky body in orbit round the sun. A meteorite is anything that survives the passage through the atmosphere and hits the ground.
The history of meteoritics, the study of meteorites, begins with a bang in Yorkshire, England, in 1795. Take us back in time.
The Wold Cottage fall happened at the end of the 1700s, right about the time that a controversy was ignited by a book called Iron Masses by a German scientist named Ernst Chladni. He read many reports of sightings and thought all of these people couldn’t have just made this up. He was one of the people who believed these stones did not only fall from the sky but came from space, an idea unacceptable to science at that time. Newton’s universe was an orderly place. There was no place for bits of rock flying about. And although meteorite falls had often been witnessed, the people who usually witnessed them were peasants working outdoors in the fields. To the men of science, even though there were hundreds of witnesses, these sightings were dismissed as a kind of mass hysteria.
You have many amusing – and scary – tales of meteorites landing on unsuspecting people. Make us laugh, Maria.
They say it is more likely that you would throw a coin 44 times and that it would come up heads every time than that you would get hit by a meteorite. But a woman named Ann Hodges in Alabama beat the odds. She was sleeping on her couch when she was struck by one. When someone asked her how she felt about this cosmic intrusion into her house, she had one word: “bruised.” [Laughs] Probably the most famous incident is the Peekskill car. A young woman’s old Chevy, which she had bought for a few hundred bucks, was hit by a meteorite on the sidewalk in front of her mother’s house. As her mother owned the house, the meteorite belonged to the mother, who sold it to a dealer and also sold the car as well. Since then, the Peekskill car has toured the museums of the world as a so-called impactifact: an artifact that’s been struck by a meteorite.
Harvey Nininger was an extraordinarily persistent and modest gentleman from the great American Midwest. He didn’t hear about meteorites until he was already married, with three children, teaching biology in Kansas. He comes across a paper describing meteorites. A couple of weeks later he sees a fireball – which is a fairly rare thing. He determined that this fireball exploded over a small town in Kansas and he goes out and puts an ad in the paper asking for anybody who has samples of what fell to earth. He became obsessed with this and devoted the rest of his life to looking for meteorites. He used to drive his car thousands of miles, stopping in little towns to explain to farmers about meteorites coming from space, and if they found any unusual stones in their fields to please let him know. He ended up receiving tons of rock. A lot of it was non- meteorite but some of it was! Because he was self-taught, the scientific community treated him very uncharitably. But he spent a lot of time researching Meteor Crater in Arizona and many of his ideas proved to be true.
Meteorites have an incredibly avid fan base. Most of the collectors and hobbyists are men, though there are women, too. Some make a living from locating fall sites and examining the strewn fields where the meteorites have fallen. Geoffrey Notkin, for example, was a punk rock musician. As a kid, he was interested in geology. Later, he had an epiphany, turned to meteorite hunting and ends up with a TV show. It takes a lot of ingenuity to put these hunts together. Aside from your basic metal detector, they need all-terrain vehicles because fall sites are often remote. The main thing is perseverance. You have to know what you’re looking for and spend hours and hours looking at the ground. But the reward makes it worthwhile: a piece of the solar system at its birth.
The largest cosmic impact occurred in Russia. Talk about the Tunguska event and Leonid Kulik’s obsessive hunt for it.
It happened early in the morning on June 30, 1908, in a place called Tunguska, in Siberia, and was the largest impact in recorded history, though actually it exploded 5 to 10 kilometres above the earth. A meteorological observatory nearly 1,000 kilometres away registered the seismic disturbance that it caused, and the sound was heard over an area of over 1 million square kilometres. Blast particles from the impact rose into the atmosphere and lit the night sky for several days. But nobody could look at the site until 1921 because of the political turmoil in Russia and also because it was in an extremely remote location, snowbound for much of the year.
But it captured the imagination of a mineralogist named Leonid Kulik, and he led the first fact-finding mission in 1921. He couldn’t reach the epicentre of the impact but he spoke to eyewitnesses, who described a tongue of flame and how the sky was cut in two, and the sound of the blast that ripped the shirts from their backs and threw them across the room.
His next expedition was in 1927. They had to go first by Trans-Siberian Railway, then on foot with horse-drawn sleds carrying all their food and equipment for six weeks. They also used reindeer from local people, who use reindeer for transport and milk. Whoever knew you could milk a reindeer? [Laughs]
When they get close to the dead zone, they found millions of trees flattened, like match sticks, in this radial pattern. They make it to the center, and there’s a huge indentation that Kulik called the Caldron. He spent years digging and drilling but never found the meteorite because it had vaporized on impact. But the jury is still out whether it was a comet or an asteroid that made the impact.
Meteorites occur in numerous literary works from Shakespeare to St. Exupery. Give us a brief cultural history.
Meteorites occur in the oral traditions of the Australian aboriginals, the Bushmen in South Africa, the peoples of Brazil’s rainforest, and Native American Indians. All over the world, there are oral traditions that speak of meteorite impacts and in some cases venerate the meteorite itself. This continued with the invention of the printing press. There was a meteorite fall over Ensisheim in the late 1400s, about 50 years after the printing press was invented. The fall became the subject of a broadsheet: The stone was taken as a portent of the success of the emperor Maximilian, who was engaged in a military campaign at the time. Historically, these kinds of events were considered portents and omens. Shakespeare used the appearance of comets and meteors frequently in his writing to heighten the drama.
The rarest and most beautiful example is in a memoir by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, who was also a pilot for the French postal services in the 1920s and 1930s. He was flying in this flimsy wooden plane across the Sahara and had an accident that forced him down on a high, conical plateau, where he managed to land. It’s completely white, made entirely of calcium deposits. While he’s up there in the starlight, he finds a black stone and realizes that it is a meteorite. He finds a couple more and realizes he has become this witness to the rain of the stars.
What makes you so passionate about meteorites, Maria?
When I started this project I had no idea how pervasive the influence of these rocks from space was. They embody incredible paradox, and I find paradox quite attractive. They’re something very rare, yet they have shaped our planet and taught us so much about the origin of our solar system. A meteorite fall in the grander scheme of things is an infinitesimal event. But to us they were a key to the universe. They taught us the Earth’s age and composition, the evolution of the stars, they may have even aided the emergence of life as we know it. But they also contributed to mass extinctions, which means they’re the alpha and omega of the planetary sciences.
The other paradox is that, however much they represented milestones in our knowledge, they were also stumbling blocks because we had a very hard time accepting meteorites even existed and, later, that they were a powerful evolutionary and geological force. This often happens when a new theory displaces an old one. You need compelling proof.
It also involved a degree of denial. Meteorites remind us of the incredibly tenuous and vulnerable situation in which we live. Meteorites remind us that Earth is our home, but Earth’s home is in space.