Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Thanks for the Meteor Shit!"



It was the summer before I started college. I remember listening to the radio one night, during a thunderstorm. Callers to the station reported seeing a meteor streaking down, somewhere on the southwest side of Indianapolis.

The next day, my father returned from a fishing trip, excited by something he’d found. He had pulled off of the road to check a noise under the hood, and noticed the top sheared off of a tree, then a trench where something had hit the ground and shattered. He picked up a piece, and came back home to have me take a look at it.

He drove me back to the scene, and I took a few photos. We gathered up all the pieces we could find, and put them in the trunk.

It was obviously a meteor, but there was something unusual about it. Shiny and metallic, it didn’t look like the burnt rock most meteors appear to be.

At home, we devised a number of tests we could try out on it. The meteor was porous and brittle; a good smack with a hammer broke off shards easily. Apparently molten when it hit, the part that had hit the ground was more compressed than the upper portion. The meteor had shattered, so there was no way we could fit the pieces together or determine the original shape. A propane torch got it good and hot, but we couldn’t get it to melt. Nothing from my chem. lab – nitric, hydrochloric or sulfuric acids - had any effect on samples.

Since it looked metallic, we decided to test it – it was non-magnetic, but when we tested for conductivity with some copper wire, a battery and a flashlight bulb, we were surprised – expecting little or no conductivity, we found that the bulb shone just as bright when a chunk of the meteor was in the circuit, as it was when directly connected with wire only.

We tried it again, this time with two good-sized chunks touching – then three – each time, the bulb was just as bright – an exceptional conductor, whatever it was.

When school started, I took a piece to the geology department. A crotchety professor gave it a momentary glance and dismissed me, telling me it was “crap.”

My father, an IPD police officer, took a sample to the crime lab, and was told that it had tested as close to titanium in specific gravity and hardness, but no known acids had any effect on it, and a sample could not be burnt – attempts at spectrophotometer analysis failed – it could not be identified.

Over the years, I sent off samples several times for analysis. In one case, I was told: “The sample consists of 60 percent silicon, 36 percent iron, between 2 and 4 percent aluminum, and has traces of calcium chromium and manganese in it. It is my belief that it is meteoric in origin, and is not anything unusual. Silicon meteors are common. Usually the iron and the silicon are not mixed, but the shape of the sample and so forth indicate that it has been mixed and perhaps homogenized by the process of coming through the atmosphere.”

Fine, but that still begged some questions. Friction with the atmosphere would burn a meteorite from the outside in, but how could one explain the uniform homogenization of the iron and silicon? There were no veins or chunks of non-homogenized silicon or iron anywhere in our samples. I am not familiar with the technology, but if one desired to make this mixture industrially – the temperature, pressure and mixing necessary to produce a uniform batch would be quite different from the conditions of a meteor burning through the atmosphere.

Plus, iron is a poor conductor of electricity. Place the same gauge of iron wire in a circuit with copper –  the light bulb will dim considerably, and the iron wire will get hot, because of its greater resistance than copper. Glass, on the other hand, is an insulator – it does not conduct electricity. Laboratory pure silicon is used in computer technology – but again, no such purity would be found in a meteor. So – just how does the uniform homogenization of iron and silicon take place in a meteor? How does the mixture of quartz and iron – insulator and poor conductor – produce a superior conductor? Could this hybrid have any use in semiconductor technology?

None of the samples I’ve sent off for analysis have ever been sent back to me, even though I’ve always requested the return.

One analysis reported that the meteor was Martian in origin. Fanciful bullshit, but entertaining.

My father and I both gave away numerous samples over the next decade; most of the haul we brought home has just simply vanished.

A “psychic” once stated emphatically that it came from a comet. A possible, but functionally irrelevant response.

Not one analysis – scientific or otherwise – of this meteor has agreed significantly with another.

In fact, only one proclamation regarding the meteor’s origin or composition has ever been of any value to me.

Some years ago, Flo wrote a couple of pieces for Stephen King’s newsletter, “Castle Rock,” including a review of Tabitha’s novel, “The Trap.” We found out that King collected paperweights sent him by his fans, so we sent him a chunk of meteor, to add to his collection, and made reference to Jordy Verrill’s exclamation in “Creepshow.”

A few weeks later, we received a post card with “Thanks for the Meteor Shit!” and Stephen King’s signature.

Now, how cool is that?