Meteorites in history: an overview from the Renaissance to the 20th century
Ursula B. Marvin, 2006. "Meteorites in history: an overview from the Renaissance to the 20th century", The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteorite Collections: Fireballs, Falls and Finds, G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, R.J. Howarth
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From ancient times through to the Renaissance reports of stones, fragments of iron and ‘six hundred other things’ fallen from the sky were written down in books. With few exceptions, these were taken as signals of heaven's wrath. The 18th century Enlightenment brought an entirely new approach in which savants sought rational explanations, based on the laws of physics, for unfamiliar phenomena. They accepted Isaac Newton's dictum of 1718 that outer space must be empty in order to perpetuate the laws of gravitation, and, at the same time, they rejected an old belief that stones can coalesce within the atmosphere. Logically, then, nothing could fall from the skies, except ejecta from volcanoes or objects picked up by hurricanes. They dismissed reports of fallen stones or irons as tales told by superstitious country folk, and ascribed stones with black crusts to bolts of lightning on pyritiferous rocks. The decade between 1794 and 1804 witnessed a dramatic advance from rejection to acceptance of meteorites. The three main contributing factors were E.F.F. Chladni's book of 1794, in which he argued for the actuality of falls and linked them with fireballs; the occurrence of four witnessed and widely publicized falls of stones between 1794 and 1798; and chemical and mineralogicai analyses of stones and irons, published in 1802 by Edward C. Howard and Jacques-Louis de Bournon. They showed that stones with identical textures and compositions, very different from those of common rocks, have fallen at different times in widely separated parts of the world. They also showed that erratic masses of metallic iron and small grains of iron in the stones both contain nickel, so they must share a common origin. Meanwhile, in 1789, Anton-Laurent de Lavoisier had revived the idea of the accretion of stones within the atmosphere, which became widely accepted. Its chief rival was a hypothesis that fallen stones were erupted by volcanoes on the Moon. During the first half of the 19th century falls of carbonaceous chondrites and achondrites, and observations on the metallography of irons, provided fresh insights on the range of compositions of meteorite parent bodies. By 1860 both of the two main hypotheses of origins were abandoned, and debates intensified on whether all meteorites were fragments of asteroids or some of them originated in interstellar space. This paper will trace some of the successes and some of the failures that marked the efforts to gain a better understanding of meteorite falls from the end of the 15th century to the early 20th century.
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This Special Publication has 24 papers with an international authorship, and is prefaced by an introductory overview which presents highlights in the field. The first section covers the acceptance by science of the reality of the falls of rock and metal from the sky, an account that takes the reader from BCE (before common era) to the nineteenth century. The second section details some of the world's most important collections in museums - their origins and development. The Smithsonian chapter also covers the astonishingly numerous finds in the cold desert of Antarctica by American search parties. There are also contributions covering the finds by Japanese parties in the Yamato mountains and the equally remarkable discoveries in the hot deserts of Australia, North Africa, Oman and the USA. The other seven chapters take the reader through the revolution in scientific research on meteoritics in the later part of the twentieth century, including terrestrial impact cratering and extraordinary showers of glass from the sky; tektites, now known to be Earth-impact-sourced. Finally, the short epilogue looks to the future.
The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteorite Collections should appeal to historians of science, meteoriticists, geologists, astronomers, curators and the general reader with an interest in science.