The late O. Richard Norton was a gifted and dedicated science writer. He wrote with a concise clarity that brought the most complex of concepts warmly to life. He was also an admired personal friend. His seminal work Rocks from Space, published in 1994, was the first popular book to bring the study of meteorites to a large audience. It remains an important, engaging, and informative work to this day, as do his later books, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Meteorites and The Field Guide to Meteors and Meteorites (with Lawrence Chitwood). Richard’s wife, Dorothy Sigler Norton, also a personal friend, worked closely with Richard on all of these titles and — an accomplished scientific illustrator — she provided much of the artwork for the books.
I, myself, provided numerous images for Dorothy and Richard’s new book, What’s So Mysterious About Meteorites?, as did my staff photographer, Suzanne Morrison. We offered these photographs gladly because everyone wanted to see Richard’s last work come into the world, under Dorothy’s guidance. As such, some might think me a little biased towards this new publication, but I am not. With a wealth of fascinating new books seeing print each and every year, I choose not to waste time discussing works I did not enjoy. So, this review is mixed with delight at holding Richard’s posthumous final work in my hand, and sadness at the realization that there will be no more.
In Dorothy’s introduction she writes:
“O. Richard Norton passed away before he completed work on What’s So Mysterious About Meteorites?, a book that meant a lot to him. He had always wanted to provide a basic introduction to his beloved meteorites that could be read by young adults and anyone else interested in the subject of rocks that fall from the sky. While finishing it, I could hear his voice in my mind, explaining some detail about meteorites to students or to the many people who showed up at our door with boxes of rocks. He was a wonderful teacher, a great husband, and a generous friend to all who studied and searched for these curious rocks.”
Amen to that.
What’s So Mysterious About Meteorites? (Mountain Press, 2012) runs exactly 100 pages, is 8 3/8 x 9 inches and, with its lively, colorful cover, is clearly aimed at younger readers. And that’s good news because I already have two overly large shelves filled with highly technical tomes on my favorite subject; works that will not appeal to any but the most eccentric school kids (I’d be a little concerned if anyone under the age of fourteen was, for example, tackling Buchwald’s Handbook of Iron Meteorites). What’s So Mysterious About Meteorites? is packed with pictures of meteorites in the lab, in studio settings, under the microscope, in the field, as well as images of me and my more-than-a-little-offbeat comrades doing what we love best — scouring the wilderness for space rocks. The most amusing of these images is a picture, on page 46, of my friend Tim Heitz gazing rapturously into the sky, while sitting atop a 37-ton South American iron meteorite known as El Chaco.
Many times, over the years, I have been told: “Geoff you really should write a children’s book about meteorites!” I chose not to pursue such a thing because I knew Dorothy had already embarked upon a similar project, and because I was already busy with existing book projects, but mostly because I knew that with Dorothy’s caring spirit, extensive knowledge of the subject, and attention to artistic detail, she would do a much better job than I could.
An image on page vi, opposite the “Table of Contents,” admirably sets the tone for the book. The full-page color photograph depicts Manuel, a young Argentinian boy, pointing at a just-found specimen of the Berduc meteorite (fell April 7, 2008) lying in the dirt. I well know that look on Manuel’s face. It is awe and wonder, mixed with amazement and triumph; the expression of a successful meteorite hunter who has, against all odds, discovered that most elusive of quarries.
In a clear and friendly tone that will be easily assimilated by younger readers, Dorothy begins the book with a brief explanation of what meteorites are, how they differ from meteors, comets, and asteroids, and later adds pleasant doses of astronomy and space exploration to the mix. She jumps straight into the action with an account of the Park Forest fall (March 26, 2003), the only meteorite shower in recorded history to have landed within the confines a major city, that being Chicago. 14 year-old Robert Garza narrowly escaped injury when a loaf of bread-sized space rock crashed through the roof of his family’s suburban home. Thousands of other smaller meteorites landed nearby. Robert’s father called the police, believing some mischief-maker had thrown a rock through the roof of his house:
“But who could throw a rock with that much force? The police took the rock away and put it in an evidence bag. Under ‘offense’ they wrote, ‘N/A (Act of God).’ The rock in the bag at the police station was soon joined by more mysterious rocks. One had hit the roof of the local firehouse. It quickly became clear that these trespassing stones were meteorites. As word got out, people started looking for them. And they found them all over the place.”
I was one of those people. I found seventeen Park Forest meteorites, and gave one each to my meteorite-hunting colleagues, Professor Jim Kriegh and Twink Monrad, both of them also close friends of the Nortons.
Later chapters discuss, in considerable detail, where meteorites come from, what they are made of, and explain meteorite-specific scientific terms such as ablation, strewnfield and rollover lip. The “Fireball Observer’s Checklist” is a handy reference for those fortunate enough to witness a very large meteor in flight. Other sections include “Mars Has Meteorites Too,” a comparison of different meteorite types, and a look at impact craters. The chapter “How Can You Find Meteorites?” provides tips for the would-be searcher, and there is guidance on how to start a collection. What’s So Mysterious About Meteorites? is rounded out by a list of helpful print and online resources, and a glossary of terms.
During the past three years I have hosted an international television adventure series called Meteorite Men. The show has sparked a great deal of interest in space rocks, especially — to my considerable glee — among younger viewers. Parents often telephone, or email, and tell us how thankful they are that our series has inspired their kids to walk away from the box and go dig for rocks, instead, in the fresh-air world. Well, except for one slightly frustrated parent who complained: “My garden now looks like the surface of the moon, thanks to you guys!”
For those who want to learn more, we often recommend my first book, Meteorite Hunting: How to Find Treasure from Space, which is a technical, hands-on field guide for those smitten with the desire to go out and recover their own cosmic visitor. My books are written for an adult audience, although they have been enjoyed by some precocious young readers, one of whom reportedly carries a heavily dog-eared copy around with him, daily, at school. His mother told me that he sometimes gets teased by other students and called a “nerd.” I asked her to pass along to him that he should not worry about any of that, because he is a whole lot smarter than the other kids, and they will all be bitterly envious, anyway, when he finds his first thousand-dollar meteorite.
Musings aside, my point is there has been a vacuum in the meteorite world until now. What’s So Mysterious About Meteorites? is not a technical book, but it covers the technical aspects of the complex science of meteoritics in a kid-friendly manner. It tells the amazing story of meteorites in an easy-to-read and easy-to-understand manner that will engage children and young adults who yearn for something more cosmically puzzling and stimulating than reality television or Xbox.
So, parents of kids who dream of being astronomers, or astronauts, or meteorite hunters when they grow up, here is your chance. What’s So Mysterious About Meteorites? will make a wonderful gift for your science-curious progeny and, who knows, perhaps it will ignite a spark that will send them — a couple of decades from now — rocketing across the globe (or into space) on the adventure of a lifetime. What could possibly make for a better present than that?
All photographs and text © Geoffrey Notkin and/or Aerolite Meteorites LLC.
Book cover © by Mountain Press.
All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.