Thursday, January 27, 2005

Chicken Little

A ten pound meteorite has smashed into a field in Cambodia, setting fire to crops. People in the nearby village think the stone is a sign from God, and want to build a shrine.

Pliny the Elder, the Roman natural philosopher, described stones that fell from the sky, and chunks of iron that resembled sponges. But he also recorded a rain of milk and blood, and a rain of flesh. Once, he tells us, wool fell from the sky, and on another occasion it rained baked bricks.

In the 18th century, the newly enlightened Academy of Sciences at Paris attempted to put an end the superstitious nonsense once and for all by simply decreeing that objects could NOT fall from the sky, whereupon European museums tossed out valuable collections of authentic meteorites. In America, when two Yale professors described a meteorite that fell in Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson is said to have remarked, "It is easier to believe that Yankee professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven."

But of course stones do fall from heaven, and there's no way to tell when or where they will fall. By all means let the Cambodian villagers build their shrine -- to the god of chaos.