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date: 07 December 2022

The Recognition of Meteorites and Ice Ageslocked

The Recognition of Meteorites and Ice Ageslocked

  • Alan E. RubinAlan E. RubinUniversity of California Los Angeles and Maine Mineral & Gem Museum

Summary

Two important scientific questions that confronted 18th- and 19th-century naturalists were whether continental glaciation had occurred thousands of years earlier and whether extraterrestrial rocks occasionally fell to Earth. Eventual recognition of these hypotheses as real phenomena resulted from initial reports by nonprofessionals, subsequent investigation by skeptical scientists, and vigorous debate. Evidence that kilometer-thick glaciers had once covered Northern Europe and Canada included (a) the resemblance of scratched and polished rocks near mountain glaciers to those located in unglaciated U-shaped valleys; (b) the similarity of poorly sorted rocks and debris within “drift deposits” (moraines) to the sediment load of glaciers; and (c) the discovery of freezing meltwater at the base of glaciers, hypothesized to facilitate their movement. Three main difficulties naturalists had with accepting the notion that rocks fell from the sky were that (a) meteorite falls are localized events, generally unwitnessed by professional scientists; (b) mixed in with reports of falling rocks were fabulous accounts of falling masses of blood, flesh, milk, gelatin, and other substances; and (c) the phenomenon of falling rocks could neither be predicted nor verified by experiment. Five advances leading to the acceptance of meteorites were (a) Ernst Chladni’s 1794 treatise linking meteors, fireballs, and falling rocks; (b) meteor observations conducted in 1798 showing the high altitudes and enormous velocities of their meteoroid progenitors; (c) a spate of several widely witnessed meteorite falls between 1794 and 1807 in Europe, India, and America; (d) chemical analyses of several meteorites by Edward Charles Howard in 1802, showing all contained nickel (which is rare in the Earth’s crust); and (e) the discoveries of four asteroids between 1801 and 1807, providing a plausible extraterrestrial source for meteorites.

Subjects

  • History of Ideas about Planets and Planetary Systems
  • Small Bodies
  • Planetary Chemistry and Cosmochemistry

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