Meteorite Hunters,Book Review: The Fallen Sky by Christopher Cokinos

The Fallen Sky is a richly detailed account of meteorite hunters and meteorites. The author’s narrative style is often lyrical and introspective, reminiscent of the style of Loren Eiseley.

The Fallen Sky is arranged into ten “books” tracing the adventures of meteorite hunters from the early 20th Century to the present, through which Cokinos weaves history, science, and a personal memoir. The book also has an introduction, prologue, and glossary.

In the Prologue, Cokinos describes melted cosmic dust found in meteorites (chondrules) as “stipples on creation’s body.” “You need not be a meteorite scientist or a meteorite collector to touch this body, for it reaches us every day, though in forms – dust and micrometeorites – too small to notice without fancy equipment.” You probably eat this cosmic dust with your lettuce. Upon seeing the flash of a meteor in the sky, “You can tell what the meteor’s made of by the color of its tail – red for silicon, yellow for iron, orange-yellow for sodium, bluish-green for magnesium, violet for calcium.”

The chronicles of meteorite hunters take us through North America, Australia, Europe, Greenland, and Antarctica.

Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona, figures in two of the stories. “Anyone intent on reaching that drab crinkle had to cross country shaped by paucity and violence: miserly rainfall…and mile-high air.” The first story concerns Daniel Barringer who sought what he thought would be a very large buried meteorite beneath the crater. He wanted to sell it to an iron-mining company. Meteor Crater figures again in the story of Harvey Nininger, perhaps America’s greatest hunter of meteorites. During his lifetime, he found nearly half of all meteorites found in the United States.

Book VII is “Passions of the Dealers.” Cokinos made several trips to Tucson’s Gem & Mineral show and visited with some of our local meteorite hunters, “quite simply, eccentrics.” Cokinos says that Robert Haag, The Meteorite Man, “has been the most influential meteorite dealer since Harvey Nininger,” and devotes several pages to Haag’s adventures. Another collector Cokinos describes is Geoff “Colonel Carbo” Notkin, who writes the Logical Lizard blog at the Tucson Citizen. Notkin wrote about The Fallen Sky: “The Fallen Sky may appear, on the surface, to be an exploration of the history of meteorites and meteorite hunters, but it is much more: a subtle journey through the author’s mind and memory on a quest for knowledge and understanding. While examining the lives of important and wildly eccentric figures in meteorite history—such as Ellis Hughes, an Oregon farmer who spent months absconding with the 15-ton Willamette iron meteorite in 1902—Christopher also shines the hard light of reason on his own life and motivations.” I agree with Notkin’s assessment of the book.

Book IX takes us to Australia to inspect large impact craters. There Cokinos discusses and speculates about the origin of life on earth and its possible connection to meteorite impacts. “Impact craters still deserve their reputations as scenes of devastation, but as they cool, they become ideal spots for life to re-emerge.”

To give you another peek at the flavor of the book, here are the first two paragraphs of the Introduction:

“On any clear night, under a dark enough sky, we can see shooting stars. We wish upon them, even if we don’t quite know what they are… and even if we don’t know where they come from or what they might tell us about the universe. It’s as if we’re eager to pin our chances on something strange and sudden, something beautiful beyond our ken. Across cultures and time, we have written ourselves into the sky. We create constellations, transforming the random spatter of stars into shapes and stories. We name planets after gods. And we associate meteors and meteorites… with the most elemental aspects of our lives: good luck, ill fortune, and even death.

Meteorites are, in fact, implicated in the seeding of life’s ingredients on Earth. And even the most indifferent know that these bits of former asteroids have rained devastation in the past and threaten to do so in the future. Meteorites are the alpha and omega of geology. These rocks – mere rocks – encompass the origins of life and the reality of death on our planet.”

The Fallen Sky is well worth reading. It should not, however, be read in a hurry. It should be savored, enjoyed, and contemplated.

The Fallen Sky is published by Jeremy P. Thatcher/Penquin. It is available at