Meteorite on Mars (image courtesy of NASA)
Now, where was I? Oh, yes, meteorites. My feeling is that people can get a bit uneasy when it comes to chatting about meteorites. Let’s face it they are not really the stuff of casual conversation. Truth is most people never talk about them at all and if, by some strange circumstance, they do drift into the frame, things can start to get a bit sticky. So, for example, when asked what I do for a living, the reply “oh, I work at the Open University researching meteorites” tends to result in an embarrassed pause, followed by something like “oh dear” or “I see” or the more expansive “that must be fun!”. Quite a lot of the time, people start looking around the room for someone else to talk to. At this stage, I attempt to rescue the situation by rapidly changing the subject to something a bit more, well terrestrial, like the weather, sport, etc. Extraterrestrial rocks do not generally represent a fertile area for party conversation. Of course, there are exceptions, a notable one being Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in the film High Society singing: “Have you heard? It’s in the stars, Next July we collide with Mars! Well, did you evah? What a swell party this is!”, but then that’s Hollywood for you. No, if you want to make an impression at a party, stay away from meteorites, that’s my advice.
I used to think that people felt uncomfortable about meteorites because they are something outside our normal day-to-day experience. But this just can’t be the entire explanation. Everyday conversation involves discussion of a vast range of subjects, including football, politics, talent shows, natural disasters, in which the participants generally have little personal experience. This includes the World Cup, the Olympics, the Eurovision Song Contest, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent and so on. You don’t need to have any particular experience of the activity to participate in the fun. So why do people come to a complete halt at the mere mention of the word meteorite? It would seem everything has its limits.
Of course’ the boffins must share some of the blame. When discussing their results, they use a vast range of bewildering jargon. So, for example, at scientific meetings you will hear animated discussion about the origin of various types of “chondrites”, or the formation condition of such things as “angrites”, “lodranites”, “eucrites”, “brachinites”, “ureilites” and host of other unpronounceable “ites”. In fact, meteorite people get real excited about stuff that even baffles other scientists.
You could ask whether any of this is really important. As long as scientists can chat amongst themselves, does it matter that everyone else has little idea what they are up to? Well, yes it does. These lumps of cosmic debris provide us with samples from a wide range of Solar System objects great and small, including Mars, the Moon and numerous asteroids. It has even been suggested that we may have meteorites from Venus and Mercury. Meteorites carry information about the birth of our Solar System. Locked inside them are grains formed in stars that existed before our Sun. Meteorites provide clues about why the Earth has oceans. There is even evidence that life, or at least its building blocks, were brought to Earth by meteorites. So meteorites are much, much more than just scientific curiosities. The study of these objects is a vibrant and exciting area of research, yielding new and important discoveries at a breathtaking rate.
So how are people with a general interest in science supposed to find out about all this wonderful stuff? And what is the point of this blog? Well, this is going to be very much my personal take on what is interesting, new and exciting in the meteorite world. I hope to try and show why studying meteorites is important and fun. And perhaps convince a few of you that meteorites can be a worthwhile line in party conversation. We might not be about to collide with Mars, but there’s a lot of other stuff out there coming our way.