In my professional life as a meteorite specialist I frequently interact with curious and friendly members of the public who believe they might have found a space rock. Authentic meteorites are about as rare a thing as you can acquire: less common than gold, diamonds, or even emeralds, so the chance of somebody stumbling across one by accident is very small indeed. But it does happen on occasion. One of the things my company does is assist people who have found, or think they have found, a meteorite.
In an average year we will receive between 800 and 1,000 such inquiries. About 0.8% of those will result in the identification of a real meteorite. In other words, somebody contacts us with a genuine find roughly every 15 months. In order to reduce the enormous amount of time we spend answering routine questions along the lines of: “Are meteorites radioactive” (no, they are not), and listening to interminable stories about how “A big meter burned down my great uncle’s barn in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ought seven,” we cleverly devised a detailed and comprehensive online guide that tells people how to determine if they have found a rock from space.
The plan backfired.
The Aerolite Guide to Meteorite Identification became such a popular and widely visited resource that we now receive more inquiries than ever. Although I do believe in the basic goodness of humanity, it amazes me how otherwise courteous and intelligent people cannot, or will not, follow the simplest of instructions. On our ID page, in big red bold capital letters, it states: “WE DO NOT ACCEPT PHONE CALLS ABOUT METEORITE IDENTIFICATION” and “THE COMPANY TELEPHONE NUMBER IS FOR SALES INQUIRIES ONLY. WE CANNOT IDENTIFY YOUR SUSPECTED METEORITE OVER THE TELEPHONE.” I go on to state, gently, that we are very busy with expeditions, research, writing, photography, television work, and so on, and would people please just email us a photo of their strange rock first. And yet, with great frequency, individuals who have clearly read that page call me anyway. Occasionally, if I am having a very bad day, I might ask if the caller has, in fact, studied the meteorite identification guide on my website. When they answer yes, I might go on to say: “And did you read the part about not calling us to ask questions about identification?” That is usually met with a stunned silence.
I appreciate that in the modern age of instant gratification there is an urgent need, among some, to know immediately if they have unearthed a million-dollar space rock (on the ID page it says, by the way: “Despite what you may have heard on television, or read on the internet, your meteorite is not worth a million dollars, sorry”). I will now own up and say that we are polite, nearly all of the time, and do our best to help, educate, and inform. We were all beginners once.
Yesterday, I received an email inquiry from a lady who told me that her husband had witnessed the June 23 Tucson fireball. He had seen it from so very close, she claimed, that he had felt the heat of the fireball on his skin. It sounds exciting but it is nonsense. As recently discussed in my review of the NBC miniseries Meteor, the flames from a fireball or shooting star go out miles up in the atmosphere. So, it would literally be impossible for someone to feel that heat, unless they happened to be . . . say . . . falling out of an aircraft or an experimental balloon, seven miles up in the sky, at just the precise moment that a fireball flashed by. I tried to explain this in a patient and friendly manner to the lady. When she told me that her husband had actually seen the meteorite fall to earth as well (highly unlikely), I invited her to email us a photo, which she kindly did. I inspected the picture, as did my staff geologist, who exclaimed: “What the hell is that?”
We think it might possibly be a partially melted tile from the bottom of an old furnace or smelter, or maybe a slab of iron oxide such as hematite. The truth is, sometimes we just cannot tell what kind of rock it is from a photo—but we can tell what it is not. There is absolutely no way, in this universe, or any alternate universes we know of, that it is a meteorite.
I dutifully wrote back to the lady, told her it was not the real thing, and thanked her for her time. Shortly thereafter, I received a terse reply:
“My husband saw it land O.k! So don’t tell me it’s not a meteorite! I’ll just find another buyer!
Or take it to a museum or the center at ASU!”
So many exclamation points!
And doesn’t this just beautifully illustrate a failing within the human psyche? We are all quick to ask those who are in-the-know for free advice: friends, doctors, lawyers, plumbers and, in this particular case a meteorite specialist. But if the answer we receive is not what we want to hear, then we think: “Liar!” or “Idiot!” or “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Today it is back to business as normal in the office. A few more (and very polite, I might add) identification inquiries came in this morning. We did recently receive an example of the real thing and will be sharing that story with you at a later date. In the meantime, it is probably only about another 13 months until the next genuine space rock arrives in our mailbox.