Meet The Meteorite Men
Posted: 15 June 2011
Astronomy Now's Nick Howes interviews Meteorite Men Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold about their meteorite hunting secrets. Find out more, including how to win one of five pieces of an asteroid, the Moon or Mars, in the July issue of Astronomy Now!
We apologise for the poor sound quality of this video, if you'd prefer to read a written transcript of the interview... here it is!:
Nick: So what got you in to meteorite collecting the first place?
Steve: Well I picked up a book on metal detecting, and basically it talked about all the ways you could use a little hand held metal detector to find treasures, and I researched places to go, and ran across a story about a lady back in 1890, who sold a meteorite to the University of Kansas, and I though “wow meteorites are worth money 100 years ago, so maybe they are worth money now and I think they've got metal in them, so sure enough they are worth money, and sure enough they have metal in them, and so I started looking into it, and due to the scientific nature of meteorites, there is documentation on them, and so I was able to go and find out where meteorites fell, who found them, when they found them, how big they were, sometimes even maps with X's on them where they found them, and since they fall in a pattern, went back to places and found more pieces of them, and that was about 19 years ago.
Nick: And when did you guys get together then, what's your story Geoffrey?
Geoff: First I'd like to say a special hello to Astronomy Now readers and viewers, as I grew up in the UK in a little town called Purley, Surrey which is no longer little and went to school in Croydon, and St Johns Wood, and my first exposure to meteorites was the Grand Old Geological Museum in London which is now part of the Natural History museum, and I was a rock hound from a very early age, my dad was a keen astronomer, so I grew up with fossils and telescopes around, then at several years old my mother took me to the museum and I was transfixed by all the minerals and fossils and everything, but when I got to the second floor and walked to the hall of the meteorites for the first time it was all over for me, here was astronomy and geology combined, and in those days they had the big irons on pedestals and I was just blown away as a little boy that I could just touch a piece of space, and I promised myself that one day, somehow I would own a meteorite. Little did I imagine that one day we'd have a television show about meteorites, but that it would become my profession and my great passion.
Nick: Just for our readers, the TV show in the UK airs on the Quest Channel, it's got an amazing cult following, they have just gone to season 3 here in the US, and if you have not seen the show, you have just got to see it, and you can see from the guys passion, the kind of stuff they are doing, plus bringing science in to a whole new domain. Next question is what do you need to start to get in to meteorite collecting?
Geoff: There's a tremendous range, someone who's interested in looking for meteorites on the weekend, who lives in the right sort of area, desert environments are good, can start with the simplest of things something simple like a magnet on the end of a stick, most meteorites are rich in iron, so working in arid areas that have small instances of terrestrial rocks, little evidence of vegetation, we look for out of place dark rocks, look for them with a magnet and if they stick, that's the first step. It's promising, but doesn't automatically mean you have a meteorite. Then you can take it to the other extreme, Steve is an inventor and designer, who's made probably the largest metal detector in the world, that is probably the size of eight billiard tables or more, which we drag behind a vehicle in order to cover large areas and go deeper into the ground
Nick: Yes we saw that in season 1 of Meteorite Men in the UK, and it was an amazing piece of kit, letting you cover a lot more area in shorter time.
Geoff: The electromagnetic pulse that metal detectors send into the ground decays very quickly over distance, so the larger the coil, the bigger the search area, and you can go deeper into the ground the signal will go, and Steve made one of the greatest meteorite discoveries in modern times, a 1440 pound oriented pallasite which the foremost meteorite researcher in the United States said was the most important discovery in 100 years, and that was due to using new technology and new search techniques to find the target way beyond the range of conventional detectors.
Steve: The irony in it, is where I found that large one is within one mile of where the lady had found that meteorite 100 years earlier, and had sold it, so I had come full circle to come full circle, and one thing led to another and we ended up with our show, and selling meteorites.
Nick: What do you think what you do adds to the field of astronomy itself? It's researching potentially the asteroid belt, and other bodies like Mars!
Geoff: Until we have effective sample return missions that go to the asteroid belt, mine samples and bring them back to Earth, meteorites are the best way of understanding other bodies in the solar system. There are little messages about the history and geology of our solar system, the asteroid belt, and also the Moon and Mars have produced little pieces, which we have here, which are one of the most popular things at the show, and of course astronomy enthusiasts can connect to these, and say “ah from the Moon and Mars, how did you get those?” They have blasted off the surface of these bodies and landed here on the Earth and been identified, so I think the study of meteorites is the tangible cousin of astronomy because astronomers are always looking up and wondering about the galaxy and the solar system, but by studying meteorites we actually get to hold a bit of the cosmos and understand the structure and history of our celestial neighbours.
Steve: And I think one thing we've noticed is that people tuning in to our show include younger children who get fascinated by what we're doing, as it's fun, there is the interest, the drama and the pay-off, not that advertisers are so keen on that market but from a personal standpoint it's quite rewarding, but we'll not see the fruit of that for a few decades, but anything that can capture the youth attention in science, I'm not an advocate that everyone should be a scientist (Geoff “I am”), but I think everyone should give it a shot, if the passion and aptitude is there, they should give it a shot and really follow it, I think so many kids could be good scientists, but they've been dragged into music or sports or other things, and it's just not where they probably should be, so we're contributing, but we might not know for several decades.
Geoff: One thing we noticed is that a large part of our fan-base is under twelve. The pilot episode was really quite scientific, with quite a lot of hard science so we thought if our show appeals to anyone it would appeal to astronomers and geologists, but 50 percent of our fan mail is from people under 12 or their parents, and we get some amusing stories, from parents writing in saying “my seven year old boy used to sit in front of the TV all the time 'til he started watching Meteorite Men, now he's digging up our garden, which now looks like the surface of the Moon, so thanks very much for that.”
Steve: One said that their birthday party last year was a meteorite men party, and they all dressed up, and so it's surreal but fun.
Nick: The time it takes to get a meteorite analysed and the cost in that, what are we talking about?
Geoff: This is a really interesting subject, in recent years the number of new meteorites found has increased tremendously largely due to increasing interest in the field, and better equipment and people understand more of what meteorites are and where to find them. Ten years ago had you made a new discovery it would have been a huge deal with scientists queueing up to analyse it, now there are so many coming in to academia that there is a significant wait time to get a new specimen anlaysed, unless it's something very unusual. We don't want to down play the importance of new finds, but we recover meteorites and our scientist colleagues say things like “oh yeah it's just another ordinary chondrite, when you find a carbonaceous chondrite or something really unusual let us know.” When we've recovered witnessed falls that are meteorite events that have been seen by credible observers, and we've recovered pieces, then there is a lot of interest as academics are keen to see and study meteorites before they are contaminated by Earth's atmosphere, rain, fertilisers, so there is a lot of interest when we call up our colleagues and say "We've got something that's only been on the ground three days!"
Geoff: A couple of weeks ago was a very controversial article in the New York Times science section, here in the United states, and the meteorite community felt it was very biased as it alluded to a black market trade in meteorites, and that academics were complaining as it interfered with their research, and nothing could be further from the truth. We have had fabulous relationships with academics for more than a decade, such as Dr Laurence Garvie who is the collections manager at Arizona State University's meteorite department, one of the worlds greatest collections of meteorites, has guested on the show many times, and we call him the third meteorite man, he has helped us enormously in classification, giving the serious science side to our work, and he along with others have worked with us, even to the extent that they have given us leads to new falls, and say "maybe you could do an episode there", and "if you do and you find anything would you be willing to give us a piece for our collection" – of course! So researchers in the lab are doing important work understanding and classifying and understanding pieces we find, and in return giving us intelligence on falls, such as "look at this old report we found" or “oh look at this meteorite has fallen in a different location to that reported” so not only are we working closely together but we're friends as well, and both sides benefit greatly and meteoritics is one of the very few scientific disciplines that the non academic makes a regular contribution to real science.