On almost any clear night, you can look up into the sky, and if you wait long enough, you’ll see a shooting star. Most of these are just grains of dust burning up in the atmosphere but every once in awhile a rock is big enough to survive all the way to the ground.
This is a meteorite.
But for a long time we didn’t think it was possible for rocks to fall from the sky. In fact, the very idea of rocks falling from the sky went against everything we understood about the universe.
That is, until an 18th century lawyer proposed a radical, even ridiculous, idea: rocks do indeed fall from the sky.
And they come from space.
Since time immemorial, people have been telling stories of stones that fall from the sky in great fireballs.
Today we know these are meteorites.
But back in the 18th century, just shortly after the United States became its own country, the idea of rocks falling from the sky was considered absurd.
Because rocks can’t just fall from the sky. Right?
According to Aristotle — one the most influential philosophers in human history — the Earth was made up of just four elements — air, water, fire, and of course Earth. The heavens were made up of an entirely different matter — perfect and unchanging.
Rocks are native only to the Earth, ergo there are no rocks in the heavens. And this concept of the universe persisted for almost 2000 years.
And according to Sir Isaac Newton — one of the greatest minds of his time — space was empty. Except for an intangible substance called “aether” that allowed light and gravity to propagate between celestial objects, space was a vacuum devoid of any matter.
And nobody in the 18th century was going to argue with Sir Isaac Newton.
So if they even existed outside the overactive imagination of ignorant country folk, these falling rocks had to come from Earth.
Because postulating that they came from outer space back then was a little like claiming flying saucers are real and visiting planet Earth today.
But a couple ideas were put forth.
They could’ve been rocks shot into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions. Or gaseous minerals that wafted up from the ground and accreted in the sky like hailstones (Really. Antoine Lavosier, “the father of modern chemistry” came up with this idea).
Or they were never in the sky in the first place.
Since these rockfalls were often accompanied by what eyewitnesses described as thunder and lightning, scientists of the time theorized that the melted and scarred rocks found in association with these fireballs were just ores disfigured by the intense heat of a lightning strike.
All of these explanations seemed way more reasonable than rocks coming from outer space.
But Ernst Chladni thought otherwise.
He wasn’t an astronomer. He wasn’t a physicist. Although he made some pioneering discoveries in acoustics, he was primarily a lawyer. He came from a long line of lawyers. But his real interest was in science and he had a keen ear for eyewitness testimony.
He believed the stories eyewitnesses told of rocks falling from the sky were credible because they were too consistent to be mere fantasies or outright lies. And he believed the evidence showed that these rocks came from outer space.
Even though that went against every known physical law of the universe at the time.
Rocks from space meant the universe wasn’t empty and that meant Isaac Newton was wrong. It also meant the cosmos weren’t unchanged and perfect. Which meant Aristotle was wrong. And it suggested that the heavens were made of the same corruptible matter as we were, and that was borderline blasphemy.
There was such a stigma surrounding rock falls, many witnesses were hesitant to come forward, afraid of ridicule, and this further stymied evidence of these rocks’ extraterrestrial origin.
So Chladni had to actively search out evidence for his universe-shattering theory.
He researched eyewitnessed events of what he called “Ironfalls” — named for the metallic nature of the rocks found associated with these incidents. He went to the sites of these supposed ironfalls and examined the rocks themselves, gathering evidence that corroborated eyewitness’ stories.
It quickly became clear to Chladni that not only were these masses of iron unlike any rocks in the surrounding area, they were like nothing else on Earth.
Sp in 1794, Chladni published a book documenting 18 cases of rocks witnessed falling from the sky and presenting evidence for their extraterrestrial origin.
The book was a flop. Chladni’s theory was disputed and his book was widely ridiculed.
Chladni’s biggest critics argued that his outlandish ideas not only went counter to their understanding of physics at the time, it went against the bible and religious dogma. To the vast majority of the science community, it was impossible for rocks to just rain down out of the blue and any stories to contrary were just that — stories — devoid of any credibility.
I mean, who are you gonna believe: Aristotle or some yokel who says he saw a stone fall from the heavens?
But the heavens would grant Chladni a lucky break.
Within months of his book being published, two widely reported and highly documented accounts of rocks falling from the sky occurred.
In Siena, Italy thousands of people witnessed a massive fireball and pieces of rock could be found all over the area. At first, scientists thought the rocks came from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius but it soon became clear that the volcano was too far away, and the observed fireball came from the opposite direction.
A year later another fireball hit England. In this case, a laborer actually saw the rock hit the ground just thirty feet away from where he stood. The stone became famous and it was even given a monument. And researchers noticed strange similarities between this stone and the stones that fell near Siena, Italy — despite the great distance and time separating the events.
A detailed analysis of these rocks’ composition was performed and it showed that they were unlike any other rock ever seen. Coupled with numerous eyewitness reports, scientists had to accept that these rocks had come from somewhere other than Earth.
But it wasn’t until the rock fall at L’Aigle, France that the consensus began to change in Chladni’s favor.
Over 3000 rocks fell over the town, prompting the French Academy of Sciences to initiate an investigation of the event — spearheaded by Jean-Baptiste Biot. His thorough and impassioned report helped establish that meteorites were real and they came from outer space, finally vindicating Chladni.
Even Chladni’s most constant critics had to accept the evidence.
But they weren’t happy about it.
Because having little pieces of rock floating around in space suggested that the Almighty had somehow left his creation incomplete, and any Creator that leaves his work unfinished cannot be absolutely flawless.
An extraterrestrial origin of meteorites destroyed our deep-seated belief in an immaculate and unchanging universe.
We now know these space rocks are leftovers from the beginning of the solar system — making meteorites some of the oldest rocks we can find on Earth. And while Chladni’s ideas may have shattered long held misconceptions about the universe, the study of these ancient rocks have given us a glimpse into the origin and true nature of our solar system.
And the fact is: the universe isn’t perfect. It’s a messy place, full of the same matter that makes up our imperfect world. And nothing is more incomplete than our knowledge of it. But with each piece of shattered rock that falls from the sky, we are able to assemble a more complete vision of our imperfect and incredible universe.
Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/AMqnC_jvt9s