Meteorite mess-up

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Nobody is quite so good at picking up meteorites as the French.

When you read how a lump of stone that was blasted off the face of Mars millions of years ago by some cataclysmic impact has made it all the way to the Moroccan desert, the chances are that it will have been spotted and bagged by the champion meteorite hunters Bruno Fectay and Carine Bidaut and subsequently named after a French scientist.

And when you hear that analysis of the chemical make-up of the rock suggests that the Red Planet once possessed water, and was therefore capable of sustaining life, then the chances are that the investigation has been carried out at the National Institute for the Science of the Universe in Paris. If the French seem more than usually fascinated by meteorites and what they can tell us about the origins of our solar system, it may be that they are making up for lost time. For in the 18th century, it was a monumental error of judgment by the French Academie des Sciences that made the study of these objects virtually impossible.

Such phenomena as "thunder bolts" and "hot stones" falling from the sky had been reported throughout history. But in its new-found enthusiasm for the strictly rational, the Academie was eager to denounce all such sightings as illusory. The chemist Antoine Lavoisier told his fellow Academicians:

"Stones cannot fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky."

And that was that.

The Academie officially declared that anybody claiming to witness the arrival of a meteorite was mentally deranged, and no self-respecting curator or collector could risk being tarred with the same brush.

And so great was the Academie's intellectual clout that practically every meteorite collected before 1803 ended its career on a museum rubbish pile.

Why 1803? Because in April of that year, more than 2,000 rocks cascaded on to the French village of L'Aigle. The Academie was forced to investigate this phenomenal meteorite shower, and finally to concede that stones could indeed fall from the sky.

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