Bruderheim, Alberta, Canada.
This one fell on March 4, 1960. It's a stone, L6 chondrite with black fusion
crust. This 1.1 kg mass was found shortly after the witnessed Fall.
Not surprisingly, meteoritics is
the science or study of meteorites -- "meteorology" was already taken. While it
may seem like an obscure, highly specific science, it is, in reality, a
multidisciplinary science requiring a broad base of knowledge. The serious
meteoriticist must have a working knowledge of astronomy, astrophysics,
geology, mineralogy, petrology, chemistry,
metallurgy and even biology.
Through the study of meteorites
scientist have an opportunity to study the conditions that existed during and
immediately following the formation of our solar system, and the planetology of
asteroids, the Moon and the planet Mars. To these scientists, and a growing
number of collectors, meteorites represent Nature's ultimate sample return
How we got to where we are is
quite a story.
Foum Zguid, Morocco, coarsest
Meteorites have been used and
worshipped by various societies for thousands of years. The Willamette
octahedrite of Oregon, U.S.A., the Campo
del Cielo octahedrite of Argentina and the Cape York octahedrites of western
Greenland were worked by indigenous natives as a source of iron for tools and
jewelry for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before being discovered by
Europeans. The Phrygian stone, witnessed to fall in 2000 BC, was worshipped by
ancient Romans for hundreds of years and meteorites have been found in Egyptian
Many early cultures recognized
certain stones as having fallen from the sky whether as a result of an oral
history of the fall or as an attempt to reconcile the unusual nature of a rock
of pure metal. But to the scientists of the Renaissance and later periods,
stones falling from the heavens were considered superstition at best, heresy at
The Road to
The tangible legacy of
meteoritics in the western world can be traced back more than 500 years to the
memorable year of 1492. On a bright morning in early November of that year a
stone chondrite weighing almost 130
kilograms abruptly ended a multimillion year journey by hitting the Earth near
the town of Ensisheim, Alsace, France, then in the hands of Germany.
The fall was well observed and a
woodcut was made of the event, but the only official notice was political in
nature. King Maximillian of Germany just happened to be passing through a few
weeks later and used the opportunity to declare the meteorite to be a sign of
God's anger towards the French for warring with the Holy Roman Empire.
remaining 55kg mass of the meteorite is on display at the Ensisheim town hall.
The earliest observed fall of a meteorite from which material still exists is
the Nogata, Japan L-chondrite that fell in A.D. 861.
The next few hundred years were
marked by the gradual advance of scientific methodology and continuing reports
of stones falling from the sky. Finally, in the late 18th century and early
19th century the two paths converged.
The 1790s and early 1800s
experienced and unusual number of witnessed meteorite falls. In 1794 Ernst
Friedrich Chladni (klad' nee), considered the father of meteoritics, published
a book in which he concluded that stone and iron masses did fall out of the sky
and were associated with high speed fireballs. Because of the hundreds of
eyewitness reports that were coming in, many scientists were beginning to
accept these conclusions. In his book, however, Chladni took the next great
leap and concluded these objects could only come from space. For this he was
immediately ridiculed, then ignored.
Historic Fall - L'Aigle,
France, L6 stone meteorite.
Finally, on April 26, 1803,
thousands of L-chondrite fragments bombarded L'Aigle in Normandy, France, an
event investigated by Jean-Baptiste Biot of the French Academy of Science.
Until that time the Academy had been one of the staunchest holdouts against
acceptance of Chladni's theory, but after Biot's analysis they, too, had to
accept rocks falling from space.
collection dating back to the mid-1800's. More than 100 meteorite localities
are represented in this thin-section collection curated at Harvard
Thin-sections allow for
detailed mineralogical study of rocks, minerals, and meteorites when viewed
with a petrology microscope
and the Yankees
In the early 1800s news traveled
relatively slowly. People did not get frustrated waiting 15 seconds for a page
to load from 3,000 miles away. New information could take months or years to be
collected, analyzed, published and distributed.
In the cold chill of a December
morning in 1807, Judge Wheeler walked from his home in Weston, Connecticut,
USA, and was surprised to see a ball of fire moving across the northern
horizon. He watched as it passed to a point almost overhead where it flashed
several times and disappeared.
A few moments later he heard a
great noise. Thunderous and roaring, the noise grew to a frightening level. He
then heard the whizzing sound of something falling. As the judge looked up, he
observed a small stone strike a nearby building, bounce off, and roll onto the
grass. The judge decided to contact nearby Yale University and ask that the
event be investigated.
Two very skeptical professors
came out to look into the matter, fully prepared to dispel the story of stones
falling from the sky. The two professors conducted a lengthy investigation.
They knew these stones were different from any they had ever seen and they
witnessed local townspeople extracting them from holes in yards and nearby
fields. Finally, the two wise professors from Yale concluded the stones must
have fallen from the sky.
Eventually the story found its
way to the White House in Washington, D.C. President Thomas Jefferson was a
scientist as well as statesman. When he heard this peculiar story he declared
it could not be true, but his advisors insisted that the stones were observed
falling from the sky and that two Yale professors investigating the incident
vouched for its truth.
Thomas Jefferson, President of
the United states, responded with great skepticism: "Gentlemen, I would rather
believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from
Historic Fall - Weston,
Connecticut USA, H4 Stone chondrite
Whether Jefferson's quote is
truth or myth, his belief real or an opportunity for a witty Virginian to take
a shot at a two Yankees, is not known and not really that important. What is
important is that the story reflects the mindset of a scientific community
struggling to reconcile observation with entrenched belief.
Are We There
Meteoritics has made significant
progress in the past two hundred years, particularly in the past 50. (as late
as the early 1940's scientists were still debating whether geologic formations
on the Earth, such as Meteor Crater in Arizona, U.S.A., were volcanic or impact
in origin.) We are learning more about what meteorites are and what they are
made of. They have been broken down into dozens of classifications, their
elemental components determined, and, in some cases, asteroidal and planetary
But for all the information
about what meteorites are and ongoing studies to determine more and more
detail, their formative process is still poorly understood. For example,Chondrules,
a component of the majority of stone meteorites, are a particular mystery: How
did these tiny glass-melt spheres form before being incorporated into the
masses of chondritic bodies? When, in the solar nebula, did they form? What
energies where required and what was the source?
We've learned a lot but our
understanding of meteorites is still unsettled requiring ongoing analysis,
observation and thought.
To get a better feel for the
science of meteoritics, try our QUIZ
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New England Meteoritical