14 December 2014

Rocks in the Sky


M
any years ago, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen or so, I got a paperback book with a title something like The World’s Strangest Mysteries. I think somebody gave it to me as a gift—a birthday or something like that—but the details are foggy. It doesn’t matter. The point is, I read a fascinating account of how in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people observed stones falling from the sky, or at any rate what seemed to be stones that fell from the sky. There was no science, however, that could account for such a phenomenom. How would rocks get into the sky in the first place, in order to fall? According to the story a famous American statesman (and scientist) who read of such an event observed “that it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”
I really liked that statement. I have quoted it on various occasions since then; I think I used it in a paper I wrote for some junior high class, though maybe I only considered it. I liked the statement because it asserts the correct position to take when presented with impossible evidence. I don’t know about the lying part, but when people assert things that are impossible it is far more likely that what they say isn’t true, that they are lying or mistaken, than that the impossible is possible. Witnesses can be wrong. The universe, on the other hand, is the way it is.
Of course, the other reason I like it is that its premise is wrong. Stones can, and sometimes do, fall from heaven. Although there was no known mechanism for getting stones into the sky, there was evidence that they had fallen. Multiple eyewitness accounts,  destruction caused by their coming to earth, the stones themselves. It was impossible for them to have fallen, and yet they had. As Dr. Derringer liked to observe, “Eliminate the impossible. Then if nothing remains, then some part of the impossible must be possible.”
Several explanations had been proposed to get over the impossibility of stones getting into the sky in the first place. One proposed that the materials for the stones ascended in the form of vapor, collected in the atmosphere, combusted through some unknown chemical reaction, and fell to earth in the form of a solid precipitate. Another was that volcanoes hurled the stones into the sky, either from the earth, or perhaps from the moon. And then there was the possibility that small unseen bodies were orbiting the earth elliptically like comets, and occasionally burned up when passing through the earth’s atmosphere.
The trouble is that none of these made the impossible possible. Eventually scientists would get the hang of meteors, but that hadn’t happened yet on 14 December 1807. About seven on that morning a Mrs. Gardner of Wenham, Massachusetts, took a look out her western window and observed the moon apparently in the act of falling out of the sky. It was a fleeting impression only; an instant later she saw that what she was seeing was a fireball moving parallel to the horizon. Judge Wheeler at Weston, Connecticut, and Mr. Page at Rutland, Vermont, likewise observed the meteor. Many fragments of the stone were gathered up by eager collectors.
One of these collectors was Daniel Salmon of New York. A large piece of the meteor fell near his house, and he found himself possessed “of the largest fragment of the meteor Stone which has yet or proverbelly Ever will be found wighing 37 pounds”. It was “proved by Inconterable Evidence to have fallen on the Same Day the Meteor passed Over weston”; he and his neighbors had seen “that a Stone fell on the Same field where this fragment was found”. It was a field of rye and oats and the piece “was found 3 feet below the Surface and many Spires of Green Rye & Oat Stibbel at the bottom of the Cavity” as well as on the rock itself.  “[T]his must be an Evidence that it fell from the atmosphere” he wrote excitedly.
Naturally he turned to the President of the United States as the most appropriate person to examine his find. “I Should take Great pleasure in being the bearer of this New Visitor in the united Stats and to Give the Curious an oppertunity of Seing this Mass was not the Distance So Great and my Resorces Small” he wrote to Thomas Jefferson on 8 February 1808. Were it not for the cost he would be happy to exhibit it to the President and Congress.
Jefferson replied on 15 February 1808 with an astonishing letter that should be required reading for any investigator of fringe phenomena. About the stone he noted that “Its descent from the atmosphere presents so much difficulty as to require careful examination. But I do not know,” he continued, “that the most effectual examination could be made by the members of the National Legislature, to whom you have thought of exhibiting it.” A scientific body like the Philosopical Society of Philadelphia would be more likely to be qualified to examine it, and its results would carry more conviction. “We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.”
Proofs proportioned to their difficulty—exactly. Extraordinary things require extraordinary evidence. “It may be very difficult to explain how the stone you possess came into the position in which it was found,” he noted. “But is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen?” At that time, judging from the proposed explanations, it clearly was not.
An article by Benjamin Silliman, the chemist who would later be the first person to refine petroleum, proved to be a sensation. He and his fellow Yale professor James Kingsley, had thoroughly investigated the incident, and the evidence presented, including a chemical analysis of the fallen stone, made it hard to avoid the conclusion that a large rock had in fact fallen from the sky. There was enough evidence for Nathaniel Bowditch to form “An estimate of the height, direction, velocity and magnitude of the meteor, that exploded over Weston in Connecticut, Dec. 14, 1807,” published in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for 1809.
As time went on, more observations were gathered, and more hypotheses put forth, it became clearer not only that stones did fall from the sky, but how they did it and why. By 1874 the situation had changed so dramatically that Silliman’s son (also named Benjamin) could tell the following anecdote:
Thomas Jefferson, then president of the American Philosophical Society, is reported to have said on this occasion, in the well-known language of David Hume regarding miracles, “that it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven”—a remarkable evidence of the limited knowledge of such subjects then prevailing in this country, even in the minds of the most cultivated people.
And this is the actual source of the statement. Not Jefferson, but the son of one of the “Yankee professors” in question, and—as Anna Berkes pointed out, a “Yankee professor” himself. Yeah, it’s another fake quotation, one of those sayings that’s too damn good to be true. Personally, I like what Jefferson actually wrote better—but it doesn’t have the snap of the “Yankee professors” version. Too bad we can’t have both.

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