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Q&A: “The Strathmore Meteorite Fall of December 1917” -- A Virtual Discussion with Peter Davidson

Extended answers from Peter Davidson (PD), panelist from “The Promise and Pitfalls of Citizen Science,” Panel 2: Historical Perspectives

Question: Do meteorites fall evenly across the earth or do some areas seem to get more - or are better observed?
PD: In general meteorites can fall anywhere on Earth. Areas where meteorites are more easily spotted are in large deserts and in Antarctica. As you can imagine, most of the meteorites that land on Earth fall into lakes, seas, and oceans. 

Question: What is the composition of the meteorite?
PD: Meteorites fall into three very broad categories - stony, stony-iron and iron. Their composition varies widely depending on which category they fall into. Stony meteorites are composed of silicate minerals such as olivine and pyroxene but often contain iron-bearing minerals. Some stony meteorites (chondrites) are very primitive and date back to the very beginning of the formation of the Solar System. Carbonaceous chondrites contain organic compounds such as amino acids and may have had a part to play in the beginning of Life on Earth. Iron meteorites are composed of iron-nickel alloys and are thought to represent the core of a planet or planetoid.

Question: How widely known was the meteorite fall beyond the British Isles? And have the citizen science drawings and other contributions proved useful over time?
PD: Although the meteorite was not a particularly rare type, indeed it was one of the most common types of meteorite, two facts served to make this famous. One was the striking and falling through the roof of the house, the other that it was seen to hit the ground - both rare occurrences even today. The photographic archive also was unique in its time for the record it made of the fall sites and the people involved. 

Question: What is the importance of collections for citizen science, both as it was understood historically and for aiding present-day initiatives?
PD: As a curator in a National Museum, I am perhaps a little biased in talking about collections. I would say that public collections like ours is available to both professional and non-professional researchers and organizations to further "citizen science" projects. The availability of curators is also vital to projects and many of my colleagues take part in them. 

Question: Are there incidents where observers and scientists disagree about whether a rock is a meteorite?
PD: As part of my day-to-day job, I get many inquires from members of the public who think they have found a meteorite - so far the total count is nil! One or two have found it difficult to accept that they are wrong despite whet they have read online. Nevertheless I always preface my reply by saying "In my opinion...". In the meteorite world, a new word has arisen to describe these false finds and that is "meteorwrongs". We do have a sample of a discredited meteorite in our collections which was listed as a bona-fide meteorite before further research revealed its new identity. Today, with all the tools at our disposal, it is very rare to get an identification wrong. 

Question: When did professional scientists become interested in meteorites? Are there folk interests/traditions that predate?
PD: The science of meteoritics came of age when scientists began to accept that meteorites came from space and were not volcanic or weather related phenomena. It is not by accident that meteoritics and meteorology have the same semantic root. One suggestion for the origin of meteorites was that they were created in thunder clouds. If I had to pick a year when the extra-terrestrial origin of meteorites was established it would be 1794 when E F F Chladni's book on the Pallas iron was published. After that, despite early skepticism, meteorites were eventually recognized for what they were. Observations of meteors, shooting stars and fireballs dates back to ancient times. Aristotle is generally accepted as one of the earliest authors on the subject and was the first to use the term.