A Meteorite Detective Story

Professor Colin Pillinger in front of the meteorite from Lake House. (image: Andy Tindle)

Everyone likes a good detective story. And at the heart of any serious who-dun-it there has to be a tenacious sleuth, who stops at nothing to find the truth. In the finest tradition of the genre here comes the tale of the meteorite from Lake House.

Back in the early 1990s a very large weathered meteorite was brought to the attention of meteorite scientists. All that was really known about it was that the man who brought it in described it as “grandfather’s stone”. He knew it was a meteorite, but how grandfather got it, and how he knew it was a meteorite were a complete mystery. There were lots of theories of course, there always are, but no real evidence. Had it come from one of the colonies – perhaps India, or South Africa, or Australia? Or could it be British?

But meteorites don’t just turn up out of the blue, someone must have known it was a rock from space and then transported to grandfather’s home in Wiltshire. They would have needed a bit of help! – it weighs more than 90 kg. For twenty years it remained a puzzle until Professor Colin Pillinger, in the finest traditions of Morse and Poirot, decided to investigate.

But how do you work out where such a meteorite might have come from? You look for clues of course.

Colin Pillinger and his wife Judith set about investigating suspects: grandfather and his friends and acquaintances. They used contemporary archives and records, found early photographs of grandfather’s home, Lake House in Wiltshire, to work out just how long the meteorite had been known about. It turned out it wasn’t grandfather’s at all. And nobody had imported it from abroad. In fact it now seems that the meteorite was collected on Salisbury Plain during archaeological work sometime in the 19th century. If correct this makes the meteorite from Lake House the largest ever found in Britian.

Further scientific studies are currently underway at the Open University to try and gain a better understanding of the terrestrial history of this important meteorite.

Now here comes the important bit:

For the very first time the meteorite from Lake House is on public display, along with other space-related objects, at The Royal Society in London. To view this new exhibition called “Objects in Space” you need to ring up first to arrange a visit tel: 0207 451 2606. The exhibition runs from Thursday 9th February to Friday 30th Marc,h 10am to 4pm.

Further details about the exhibition are available on the Royal Society’s blog. To see some additional images of the exhibition you can also visit the Open University’s Virtual Microscope website.

To hear more about Colin Pillinger’s meteorite research and in particular about the meteorite from Lake House, you can watch his Michael Faraday Prize lecture on line on The Royal Society’s website.

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