The meteorite fall at L'Aigle and the Biot report: exploring the cradle of meteoritics
Matthieu Gounelle, 2006. "The meteorite fall at L'Aigle and the Biot report: exploring the cradle of meteoritics", 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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‘Stones fell around L'Aigle, July 26th 1803’. Thus ends the results section of the Biot report read in front of the Institut de France, the 29 Messidor an 11 (17 July 1803) after his 9 days trip to L'Aigle, 140 km NW of Paris. At the time of the L'Aigle fall, the mere existence of meteorites was harshly debated. Chladni's book on iron masses had been published in 1794, but his ideas had not yet convinced the savants or the educated laymen of the time. Meteorite falls were anomalous events in the order of things.
In this paper, I argue that Biot's report on the visit he made to L'Aigle is a key event in establishing the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites. Biot was able to build the proof outside the laboratory and the library, solving the central problem of the distrust granted to the eyewitnesses of the falls, usually peasants. The reason why Biot was sent to L'Aigle by the Minister of Interior Chaptal was the establishment, in the early 19th century, of a centralized politico-administrative structure whose aim was to know, classify and organize France. While Chaptal was trying to bring every social and economic reality into a new social order, Biot brought back the L'Aigle meteorites, and thereby all meteorites, within the order of things.
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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.