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Geologic Column
Manna from the Heavens?
Lisa Rossbacher

Scientists deal with facts. We collect information, analyze it, test hypotheses, refine theories and gather more data to test new theories. Sometimes, this approach is exactly what the public does not want to hear. Whether the facts deal with the limits of a floodplain, the inevitability of earthquakes, the finite nature of resources or the value of a arock, geology often presents us with uncomfortable truth.

Most geologists have multiple opportunities over the course of their careers to identify rock samples collected by the public. Sometimes a cleavage plane or color catches the collector’s eye, and the sample arrives with genuine curiosity about the nature of this piece of Earth. Such interest is a pleasure to encounter and support.

Some collectors, however, bring their discoveries to geology departments to simply confirm that they have found a specimen that has value — monetary value — rather than to learn about facts. Consequently, they are looking for corroboration rather than education. This situation can offer a disappointing insight into human nature.

The type of material suspected of being valuable differs geographically. In some parts of the country, collectors believe they have found gold. Volcanic areas generate dreams of diamonds. Mineralized bones certainly belonged to a Tyrannosaurus rex. The more valuable the finder believes the materials to be, the less he wants to believe it is pyrite or quartz or a bovine femur.

On the Southeast’s Coastal Plain, every odd rock is suspected of being a meteorite. Indeed, any hard rock almost certainly "ain’t from around here." Most of River Street in Savannah, Ga., for example, is paved with ballast stones that came in ships from Europe. They are small, rounded boulders that look unusual. Hence, many of the suspected meteorites in the region turn out to be ballast stones. The rocks have interesting stories, but they don’t have much intrinsic value.

Occasionally, however, meteorites turn up: In Statesboro, Ga., farmer Harold Cannon found a funny rock while he was harvesting butter beans in June 2000; it felt heavy and had a bright orange weathering rind. Cannon tossed the softball-sized chunk inside a shed, and in summer 2003, he rediscovered the rock when he was cleaning. When he chipped off a piece, he was surprised that the rock was dark inside.

For a positive identification, Cannon took his rock to the geology and geography department at Georgia Southern University. Three members of the faculty looked at the specimen, first with hand lenses and a binocular microscope and then in thin section. They all knew that this truly was an unusual sample, so they sent fragments of the rock to the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Meteorites and to Franklin & Marshall College for analyses. The conclusion: It really was a meteorite. Cannon had found an L-type (low iron) ordinary chondrite.

But Cannon’s focus was not on the incredible coolness of holding a piece of outer space in his hands, nor was it the amazing story that must underlie the journey of this rock to end up in a bean field in southern Georgia; Cannon was focused only on how much money he could get by selling the sample.

The Georgia Southern geologists told Cannon that the meteorite he found is one of the most abundant types and might retail for $3 to $8 per gram. A commercial dealer might be able to sell this approximately 2-kilogram specimen for $6,000 to $16,000, but Cannon should only expect to get one-sixth to one-third of that price.

Because the meteorite was found nearby, the faculty knew that it would be an excellent addition to the Georgia Southern Museum. They advised Cannon about where and how to announce his meteorite was for sale, and they asked him to bring his best written offer to the university before he accepted it. The faculty felt confident that they could work with the museum and the university to make an acceptable offer. Cannon, however, was suspicious of both the estimated sale price and the offer, and he quoted other "advisors" who had assured him the rock was worth a fortune — he put the meteorite up for sale on eBay, with a note that he had already rejected an offer of $25,000.

The media further exaggerates such discoveries. The Savannah Morning News, for example, reported on the Statesboro Meteorite with the headline "Mega-dollar meteorite: Bulloch County farmer holding out for big bucks for not-so-big rock" (April 5, 2004).

Later that month, on April 26, 2004, the Calgary Herald reported that a Canadian hunter had found two meteorite fragments that, at $10 per gram for the 9.8-kilogram total, might sell for $100,000. The hunter was unemployed and anticipating how this much money would improve his situation. An Internet comment on this article noted, "Hope he doesn’t start spending money he doesn’t have and never will get. … This guy is going to be disappointed when reality sets in." In response to this observation, a correspondent replied (with the original punctuation), "yea, kinda like the statesboro meteorite on ebay — ‘owner has refused an offer of $25,000’ — he’ll wind up soaking it in heinz 57 and , putting it in the toaster oven and eating it for dinner."

But not everyone is looking to cash in a discovery immediately. A New Orleans couple returned home from work on Sept. 23, 2003, to discover a scene filled with debris. They feared a broken pipe, something dropped from an airplane, a break-in. The police correctly identified the culprit: a meteorite. Subsequent analyses showed it was an H-type chondrite. These, too, are relatively common, but this was a "fall" rather than a "find," and knowing exactly when and where it arrived on Earth increases the value. With about 13.6 kilograms of rock valued between $8 and $20 a gram, the value could be between $108,000 and $272,000.

The new owners of the "New Orleans Meteorite" are taking their time to consider the options that have, literally, fallen from the sky. They sent away a small sample for analysis, locked up the rest in a secure location, and hoped that their insurance would pay for the expected $10,000 of repairs to their home.

Meanwhile, the highest eBay bid on the Statesboro Meteorite was $1,055.55. It wasn’t sold.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

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