Impossible Rocks that Fell from the Sky
63,000 ton fireball: 50,000 years ago Arizona plain never
knew what hit it (Copyright Lee Krystek,
I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would
lie than that stones would fall from heaven - Supposedly
said by Thomas Jefferson after hearing of meteorite exploding
over Weston, Connecticut on December 14, 1807.
Science now accepts the idea that rocks can fall
from outer space onto Earth. Not only does it accept the existence
of meteorites, it embraces it: Major scientific theories, from
the cataclysmic end of the dinosaurs
to the possibility of life on Mars,
turn on the existence of meteorites. This wasn't always the
case, however. Until just two-hundred years ago, the best scientific
minds of the era thought the idea of rocks falling from the
sky was a bunch of hokum.
The story of rocks falling from the sky started
back in ancient times. History records that "sacred stones,"
probably meteorites, often became objects of worship. In the
temple of Apollo at Delphi sat a sacred stone that fell to the
ground from the sky. According to Greek mythology, Kronos (one
of the Titans and ruler of the universe) was in the habit of
swallowing his children to avoid having them growing up to overthrow
him. When his son Zeus was born, Kronos' wife, seeking to save
the child, tricked Kronos into swallowing a stone instead. When
Zeus finally did overthrow Kronos to become King of the Gods,
Kronos regurgitated the stone. It fell to Earth at Delphi. Visitors
to the temple built there reported that the stone was "of
no great size" and was anointed by the resident priests
In November of 1492, a 280-pound meteorite fell
in a wheat field near the village of Ensisheim, France. A young
boy witnessed it and led the townspeople to a three-foot deep
crater where it lay. The people thought the object to be of
supernatural origin. After seeing it King Maximilian of Germany
declared that it must be a sign of the wrath of God against
the French who were in a war with the Holy Roman Empire at that
time. Maximilian ordered the rock to be moved to the church
of Ensisheim where it could sit as a reminder of God's intervention.
It stayed there until the French Revolution when the secular
government seized it and moved it to a national museum at Colmar.
Ten years later it was returned to the church and eventually
moved to the town hall in Ensisheim where it rests today. The
meteorite is now less than half of its original weight, the
victim of souvenir hunters and scientists who removed samples
from it for study while it lay in Colmar.
Despite these incidents, many learned people refused
to believe that rocks could fall from the sky. The great Greek
philosopher Aristotle thought that rocks could not fall from
the sky because the heavens were perfect and could not possibly
have loose pieces floating around to fall to Earth. When a meteorite
fell at Thrace near Aegospotami, Aristotle was forced to take
the position that strong winds had lifted an Earth rock into
the sky, then dropped it..
An alternate theory was developed to explain stones
that fell from the sky. This theory held that meteorites somehow
formed in the sky during violent thunderstorms. Proponents of
this idea suggested that particles inside the clouds consolidated
because of the heat during a lighting flash. For this reason
the rocks were sometimes referred to as thunderstones.
Science and the scientific method began to develop
around the seventeenth century. A healthy skepticism of stories
that could not be proven through either independent observation
or explained by known facts developed in scientists' minds.
Scientists learned to put aside their personal beliefs to observe
the natural world as it actually existed. While this advanced
astronomy, chemistry and mathematics, the study of meteorites
suffered. Why? The fall of a rock from the sky was so rare that
the chances of a scientist being there in person to observe
it was very small. Also, reports of rocks falling from the sky
had always been associated with evil omens or stories of disaster.
This made accounts of meteorite falls that came in from the
countryside easy to dismiss as folklore.
In 1790 a fireball raced across the sky near the
town of Barbotan in southwest France. Immediately after the
fireball disappeared a shower of stones fell. Over three-hundred
people witnessed this event, making it difficult for French
scientists to discount. The scientists were forced to admit
there was some connection between the fireballs that fell from
the sky and the rains of stone. In 1794, four years later, more
than 200 stones fell from the sky near Siena, Italy with enough
witnesses to make the existence of the event undeniable. Though
many scientists explained the stones as condensations from "igneous
clouds" or volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius, a German researcher
had a different idea.
That year Ernst Friedrick Chladni published his
theory in a book titled On the Origin of the Mass of Iron
Discovered by Pallas and Others Similar to It, and on Some Natural
Phenomena Related to Them. In this work Chladni built a
case that rock falls were related to fireballs even if the fireballs
were not observed. He also reached the conclusion that fireballs
because of their very high-speeds, among other characteristics,
had to be coming from outer space. At first many scientists
were reluctant to accept what seemed like such an outlandish
idea, but a rock fall investigated by Jean-Bapiste Biot in 1803
cinched the case. Biot showed that some thousand stones had
fallen in an elliptical pattern, just the sort of pattern one
might expect from a disintegrating fireball coming down at an
meteorite which was blasted of the surface of Mars and
landed in Antarctica. Some scientists think it contains
fossils showing there was once life on the red planet.
Across the sea in the new United States, scientists
that were still doubtful of Chladni's theory found themselves
confronted by the Weston fireball of December 14, 1807. Two
scientists from Yale College recovered 330 pounds of stony material
from the path of that fireball. The rocks recovered became the
first of a large collection of meteorites that is now housed
at Yale University.
Further proof of the celestial origin of meteorites
was provided by an English chemist named Edward Charles Howard.
After examining meteorite specimens recovered from widely-separated
locations in Europe and Asia, he found that they fell into three
categories: mostly stone, mostly iron and a mixture of both
stone and iron. The most startling thing Howard discovered was
that almost all meteorites had a form of nickel alloyed with
the iron. Nickel is almost never found mixed in with iron deposits
on Earth. Howard's analysis went a long way toward establishing
that all meteorites were related to one another, but not related
to the rock in the areas which they had been found. This indicated
that they had all come from a single location that was not on
the planet Earth.
Even after scientists accepted the idea that rocks
could fall out of the sky, it still took them a while to come
to believe that really big rocks could fall from the
sky. Rocks large enough to make craters like those seen on the
moon. This was partly because the largest meteor impact witnessed
was only about a ton in weight and had made a hole just slightly
larger than itself. Most scientists in the beginning of the
20th century thought that very large meteors would burn up in
Earth's atmosphere before they hit the ground.
This changed as the result of the work of Daniel
Moreau Barringer, a geologist, mining engineer and lawyer. European
Americans had been aware of a mile-wide, six-hundred foot deep,
dish-shaped depression with raised edges in the plain of Arizona
since the 1870's. Scientists that surveyed the spot late in
the 19th century knew that the area surrounding the plain was
littered with chunks of meteorite, but never understood that
the depression was a huge impact crater. Most reached the conclusion
that this feature was the result of a volcanic steam explosion.
In 1902 Barringer looked at the reports of iron meteorite debris
in the area and figured that somewhere buried below the surface
of the crater was a huge meteorite mass weighing hundreds of
tons. Barringer obtained the mining rights to the area thinking
to find the meteor and sell off the valuable iron and nickel
it contained. He pursuded this dream for almost 30 years, but
never found the main mass of the meteorite. However, his drilling
and excavations provided evidence to astronomer F.R. Moulton
who also recognized that the crater was formed by an impact
of a meteorite. Moulton correctly concluded the speed of the
impact of the mass was so high (7 to 17 miles a second) that
the bulk of the meteorite was vaporized, leaving only small
fragments in the surrounding area that had split off the main
mass prior to the impact.. The load of iron and nickel Barringer
had been looking for did not exist.
Controversy over the origin of the crater continued
until 1957 when Eugene Shoemaker, a geology graduate student,
reexamined the site and produced additional evidence showing
that the crater was the result of an iron meteoroid about 80
feet in diameter and weighing 63,000 tons, hitting the plain
approximately 50,000 years ago. The impact released energy equivalent
to a 1.7-megaton bomb.
At about the same time Barringer was exploring
the arizona crater, Leonid Kulik was
also looking for a huge meteorite in Asia. Kulik, a Russian
scientist, lead an expedition to Siberia in 1921 to investigate
stories of a fireball that leveled hundreds of square miles
of forest in 1908. His report further lent support to the idea
that large meteorites, capable of doing major damage, occasionally
hit the earth. In fact, if the Siberian
meteorite had come 4 hours later, it would have destroyed
the city of Moscow as effectively as a hydrogen bomb.
piece of the Barringer meteorite recovered from Canyon
Diablo. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2001)
Science learned to accept the idea that stones-
sometimes big stones - could fall from space and the notion
of thunderstones was relegated to the trash can of folklore.
Almost. Almost, because even in recent times reports of stones
falling to the ground during heavy thunderstorms still occasionally
occur as this report from the March 14, 1920 issue of Nature
During a heavy thunderstorm which ensued on
Monday, March 4, between 2:30 p.m. and 4.15 p.m., an aerolite
was observed to fall at Conleny Heath, near St. Albans. The
observed who has placed the specimen in my hands for examination,
stated that the stone fell within a few feet from where he was
standing, and that it entered the ground for a distance of about
3 feet. Its fall was accompanied by an unusually heavy clap
of thunder. The example weighs 5 pounds 14 1/2 ounces and measures
6 3/4 inches by 5-5/8 inches at its great length and breadth
respectively. The mass is irregularly ovate on the one side,
and broken in outline on the other. The actual surface throughout
is fairly deeply pitted, and under magnification exhibits the
usual chondritic structure of the crystalline matter with interspersed
particles of what appears to be nickeliferous iron.
The author of the report, G.E. Bullen, submitted
the stone to the British Museum where it was examined and determined
not to be of meteorite origin. So do thunderstones really exist?
Science once thought that meteorites were not real. Perhaps
a hundred years from now we will know that they were wrong about
thunderstones, too. But then again, perhaps not.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2001. All Rights Reserved.