RESPONSE #1 – Mat Paskins
My meteorite came into my custody along with half its paperwork. It is a handsome meteorite, the shape of a foot or an island, or a body in a shroud, cross-hatched with a wicker-work texture, and on the right-hand side of its photograph, a darker core like the stone of a fruit. There is a seam running on that side as well. As I get to know my meteorite, and obtain the rest of its documents, I will learn its patterns’ origins and the different metals of which it is composed.
My meteorite’s paperwork raises the question of who gets to decide that metals can fall to earth from space. Before I started to look at my meteorite, I could not keep the definition of the word distinct from “meteor”. The difference is that meteors are found (not found; observed) in space, while meteorites appear on earth. This, sadly, is not a standard function of the suffix “–ite” in English. I cannot drag a cloud to earth by calling it a cloudite, even if I have seen it pass brightly over the surface of a puddle. Nor is a crashed rocket a rocketite.
The hodgepodge word reflects an initial uncertainty about the nature of meteorites. The Oxford English Dictionary dates their first occurrence in English to 1823, the year after they had been named in French. Their extra-terrestrial origin had been a source of controversy through the latter part of the eighteenth century. The Sociologist Ron Westrum, analysing the course of this controversy, described it as a matter of ‘social intelligence’. Identification of meteorites required reports not only from common people, who saw showers of rocks falling from space, but also ‘unimpeachable eyewitness testimony’.
According to the catalogue entry on my meteorite, it was found in Virginia by “a slave”, during the 1870s. I do not have all its paperwork with me and so I do not know his name, which is recorded elsewhere. The paperwork I have describes how this man first tried to sell the meteorite ‘for a dollar’; failing this, he used it in the construction of a stone fence. From there it was liberated, sliced up, and distributed to different scientific collections. I can learn something about him – not about him, almost certainly, those documents are unlikely to have survived – but the social position of others like him, what is likely to have been the shape of his day, in its hopes and violence and fatigue.
I am fairly sure I cannot know what he made of the markings on its surface, or whether my meteorite reminded him of something which might have been a nut, or a body, or a cross-tied cloud.