Meteorites and the Smithsonian Institution
Roy S. Clarke, Jr, Howard Plotkin, Timothy J. McCoy, 2006. "Meteorites and the Smithsonian Institution", 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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Meteoritics at the Smithsonian Institution is intimately linked to the broader growth of the science, and traces its roots through influential individuals and meteorites from the late 18th century to the dawn of the 21st century. The Institution was founded with an endowment from English mineralogist James Smithson, who collected meteorites. Early work included study of Smithson’s meteorites by American mineralogist J. Lawrence Smith and acquisition of the iconic Tucson Ring meteorite. The collection was shaped by geochemist F.W. Clarke and G.P. Merrill, its first meteorite curator, who figured in debate over Meteor Crater and was a US pioneer in meteorite petrology. Upon Merrill’s death in 1929, E.P. Henderson would lead the Smithsonian’s efforts in meteoritics through a tumultuous period of more than 30 years. Collections growth was spurred by scientific collaborations with S.H. Perry and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and a sometimes contentious relationship with H.H. Nininger. Henderson played a key role in increasing meteorite research capabilities after the Second World War, placing the Smithsonian at the forefront of meteoritics. After 1969 involvement in the fall of the Allende and Murchison meteorites, lunar sample analyses, the recovery of the Old Woman meteorite and recovery of thousands of meteorites from Antarctica produced exponential growth of the collection. The collection today serves as the touchstone by which samples returned by spacecraft are interpreted.
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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.