The sky is falling

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Thursday, January 4, 2007

Everyone carries around a kit bag of pet jokes or wisecracks. One of my favorites gets pulled out at every "just in case" moment in life, as in, "just in case something happens to me." Only in my case, it's "just in case a meteorite hits me in the head." It always gets at least an amused smirk.

Until the other day, when a Reuters news report popped up on my computer monitor about a suspected meteorite strike on a house in New Jersey. The metallic-looking object, reported as being 13 ounces (377 grams) and roughly the size of a golf ball, crashed through the roof of a house in eastern New Jersey January 2 and became stuck in a wall. The FAA apparently had ruled out the object as an aircraft part.

Because I grew up in the New York Metro area, the mere mention of "New Jersey" usually elicits ridicule. (Q: Why do so many people in Manhattan go to psychotherapists? A: Because the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey.) But this time I wasn't laughing.

This thought chilled me to the bone: After all these years of taunting the meteorite gods with my wisecrack, could that meteorite strike on New Jersey have been meant for my skull?

There are surprisingly few documented cases of meteorite impacts on human beings. After all, we are so puny and the universe is so vast. What's the chance of getting stuck with a needle if you are living in a humungous haystack?

In the 1950s, the combination of really bad luck and a sedentary lifestyle caused Mrs. Ann Elizabeth Hodges — described in a TIME magazine account as a "pleasant, plump housewife of 32" - to suffer a meteoric assault. Hodges, a resident of Sylacauga, Alabama, was lying on her sofa when the offending space rock smashed through her ceiling and struck a glancing blow on her hip and hand. She escaped with only bruises.

But what about death-by-meteorite? Robert Haag, a meteorite collector and dealer based in Tucson, Arizona, told me that he knows of only one death by meteorite believed to be credible. It allegedly occurred on a Dutch ship sailing in Indonesian water in the late 1600s. The meteorite struck a sailor on deck and, Haag says, "splattered him all over."

Another well-known incident often cited proves that at least the meteorite gods don't discriminate by species. In 1911, a strike in El Nakhla, Egypt, reportedly killed a dog, suggesting rocks from space are also a Sirius hazard to our canine brothers and sisters. (Nakhla is more important to meteorite history because it is the "N" in the SNC class of meteorites thought to originate on Mars.)

As for human deaths by meteorite, reported incidents abound but credible proof does not. Mark Bostick, a meteorite collector in Kansas, has compiled more than 10,000 references in newspapers to meteorites, back to the late 1700s. "Nine out of 10 of them are just not credible," he told me. "The media is often inaccurate in its reporting about meteorites." (Hey, wait a minute, he's talking about me....)

Bostick has uncovered scores of flat-out hoaxes but many more that just amount to astronomical fish stories. Consider this particularly silly example, published in 1883, that Bostick quotes on his web site:

    "A dispatch from William's Ranche, Texas, states that an immense meteor fell yesterday, destroying the house of M. Garcia and killing himself, his wife and five children. Every window in the town was shattered and all the houses [were] shaken. The meteor is still steaming and covers an acre of ground."

If a meteorite with a footprint of an acre truly did strike M. Garcia's house, the entire town and everything around it for a considerable distance would have been transformed into a smoking hole in the ground. Nor would the meteorite have survived the impact. (In case you need to know, an acre is 43,560 square feet, or roughly the size of a football field minus the end zones.)

Another of Bostick's intriguing newspaper gems concerns an incident reported by United Press in 1951 from Tehran, Iran, where 12 people and "about 300 cows, sheep and donkeys were reported to have been killed in [a] meteoric shower." Meteor showers are actually a rain of fine comet dust, and the grains burn up long before reaching Earth. That gets the space rocks off the hook for this one, but one does wonder about the commercial potential of umbrellas for meteor storms. Infomercial anyone?

So, if people have been killed by meteorites in the past, many of the published reports aren't very helpful in assessing the risk that I'll get hit in the head with a meteorite.

Another way of approaching the problem is to flip the question around. If I wanted to be hit on the head with a meteorite, what could I do to increase my chances? Is there anywhere on Earth (excepting New Jersey) where I could improve the odds of a bull's eye? Unfortunately, there is no specific place on Earth more prone to meteorite impacts than others.

Astronomy's in-house meteorite maven, Michael Bakich, dryly suggested that I "get obese," because the chance of being hit with a meteor increases with size. Indeed, if you happen to be a planet, meteorite impacts are guaranteed; if you're a person, you either get bigger or live longer. Hypothetically, that means Americans are at higher risk of a personal encounter with an errant chunk of Mars than, say, the relatively leaner Japanese. But because the base risk of a meteorite strike to my head is already so small, even the 25 pounds I've packed on in the past 10 years won't help my cause.

I asked Haag for advice on how to get a meteorite to find me. Who better to ask than someone who has spent a big part of his life looking for them. "Sure, just come on over to my house and say, ‘Hey, Bob, throw one at me.'" He pauses a moment to think of a serious answer. " Nothing you can do."

Intriguingly, there are certain amazing meteorites in private collections and museums for which even a meteorite expert like Haag — well acquainted with their hazards — would be willing to sustain a direct hit by a space rock (with the provision he would receive the very best medical care and physical therapy afterwards). For example, he says, he would take the hit for a piece of the Antarctic SNC that some scientists believe carries traces of ancient martian life. Or a piece of the Murchison meteorite, a carbonaceous chondrite meteor that fell on Australia in 1969 brimming with exotic organic compounds and complex amino acids.

However, if your goal is to find meteorites instead of being clobbered by them, then Antarctica's the place to be, Haag confirms. Meteorites that fall to Earth there get stuck in ice, and many of them are gradually exposed on the surface. Many prized SNC meteorites have been discovered in Antarctica.
Alas, science and statistics appear to offer no hope of landing me the role as the first rigorously documented victim of death-by-meteorite. Perhaps superstition and magical thinking will work. For example, I could move to New Jersey and install a new and expensive 50-year roof on my house. Surely if the meteorite gods have got it in for me, they would send a rock hurtling toward my head the morning after I pay off the loan for the roof.

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