Mr. Meteor-right

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Earlier this year, a giant green fireball lit up the sky over my hometown. With a sonic boom, a meteor exploded over Coloma, California — near Sutter’s Mill, the origin of the California Gold Rush — and littered my neighbors’ yards and horse pastures with chunks of deep black space rock.

Like many meteorites, the rocks were dense, with rounded edges and a slightly iridescent coating called a fusion crust which forms as meteorites streak through the atmosphere. However, unlike the vast majority of meteorites, these contained organic material which could potentially hold scientific clues about the origin of life.

They were also extremely valuable. Soon hundreds of people had flocked to Coloma and nearby Lotus, and were walking in slow, meandering circles, looking for meteorites on the ground with their heads down. I was in Baltimore at the time, but according to my father it looked like an invasion of zombies. My old schoolmate Sarah’s parents found a large meteorite in the rain gutter on their roof. A four year-old boy found one in his neighbor’s gravel driveway worth $15,000. To the disappointment of his parents, rumor has it that the owner of the driveway wanted a fifty-percent cut.

Taking a hint from Gold Rush-era entrepreneurs, someone printed a batch of T-shirts with a Sutter’s Mill meteorite decal. One of the first people to buy a T-shirt was scientist Peter Jenniskens from the SETI institute in Palo Alto. During the first few days of the meteorite rush, Jenniskens spent hours standing in front of an old Gold Rush reenactment gun shop in the James Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, helping people distinguish between meteorites and, as he calls them, “meteor-wrongs.” He encouraged people to contribute their finds to science, and not to touch the meteorites with their bare hands and risk contaminating them. (It’s better to pick them up with a piece of clean aluminum foil.)

People quickly found most of the easily-spotted rocks and fragments, but Jenniskens continued to come back for many weekends with a shifting team of volunteers and college interns. My father offered him and his volunteers a place to stay at our family’s whitewater raft camp. He was there when I came home for a visit, so despite strong misgivings about the 100 plus-degree heat, I asked to go along on a search.

We drove up a dusty dirt road toward the Spies’ place. Mrs. Spies was my elementary-school lunch lady and I hadn’t seen her for at least fifteen years! Yet here I was invading her driveway and horse pasture with scientists from NASA and SETI and even three camera crewmembers from the Discovery Channel, who huffed and puffed in the 106-degree heat, sweating profusely as they tried to make exciting television.

The Discovery Channel team had their work cut out for them. As we stepped slowly and gingerly through the scrubby underbrush, accumulating foxtails and burrs in our socks and using sticks to push aside forests of poison oak, I saw rounded river rocks, deer droppings, and even bits of charcoal that looked like meteorites. It was tedious and roasting hot. I gave up on finding anything after the first fifteen minutes, and couldn’t imagine how the team had managed to do this for eight hours a day on nearly every weekend since April — especially after several weekends had proven fruitless.

But then, a volunteer named Bev cried out. Lying dead center on the crumbly red dirt of an exposed molehill was a small black rock. It was about the size of a corn kernel, smooth and curved on one side, broken clean off on the other. Looking closely, you could see the tell-tale iridescence that looks like the sheen on an owl feather. About twenty minutes of rejoicing followed,  as well as some hilarity as the Discovery Channel team discovered that they had unwittingly charged into a stand of poison oak in their eagerness to capture the action. “Is this poison oak?” they kept asking the locals with rising panic. “Yes,” the locals inevitably replied. “That’s poison oak.”

After the film crew got their shots and the team calmed down, I thought, great, we’re done, we can go back to an air conditioned room now, or at least get in the shade. But how wrong I was. How little I understood the fever which had gripped Jenniskens and the volunteers, bringing them back weekend after weekend to hunt for nearly invisible shards of rock in hot, rugged terrain. I began to understand the kind of fanatical patience I was dealing with: the same kind of patience that is required to comb the entire universe for clues to the origin of life.

Like the Gold Rush, when every new nugget sparked another wave of enthusiasm and seeking, the search for meteorites was self-perpetuating. As soon as their excitement about the fragment died down, the scientists and volunteers began to speculate that it must have hit a tree on its way down to the ground and shattered, which meant that there were other pieces nearby. Soon Jenniskens was urging his team further down the hill and deeper into the poison oak. I stayed with them until they finished looking on the Spies’ land, but didn’t drive with them to the next location. It was Father’s Day, after all.



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