The Sky is Falling!

It was the stuff of myths, but true. On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 26, 1803, rocks fell from the sky over L’Aigle in Normandy, France. The French Academy of Sciences sent twenty-nine year old Jean-Baptiste Biot, a physicist, to investigate the claim. What Biot found was astounding. Over 3,000 rocks, all of the same type, and similar to other rocks claimed to have fallen from the sky. After a thorough investigation, Biot reported that the rocks had to be of extraterrestrial origin given that such a large number had shown up at the same time and eyewitnesses reported them falling from the sky. This was even more astounding because in the 18th Century the French Academy of Sciences decided, by ballot, that chunks of iron claimed to have fallen from the sky were all terrestrial. No less than Lavoisier himself had analyzed one of these stones and concluded it must have been caused by lightning striking the ground, which was the flash and boom reported by eyewitnesses.

That changed following that afternoon in April, 1803. With Biot’s paper was born the study of meteorites as extraterrestrial objects, and thus ended a contentious chapter of scientific history. For despite accounts of meteorites and their use by man (iron meteorites were the only source of the metal until man figured out how to smelt ore), some, all the way back to Aristotle, dismissed the idea that stones could come from beyond the earth. From a volcano, yes; maybe even picked up by an unusually strong storm, but from the realm of the planets? Uh-uh. After the French Academy of Sciences decided meteorites did not exist, more than one European museum threw out their collections. After all, the consensus of the French Academy of Sciences was that they couldn’t have fallen from the sky, and that made them just rocks.

It’s easy to think “what dunderheads,” but they looking into the matter, as Lavoisier’s chemical analysis shows. Yet there was likely a bit of confirmation bias in Lavoisier’s study: Lavoisier was doing the 18th Century version of Mythbusters, debunking superstition, and likely considered the meteor that fell on Luce, France, in 1768, as one of them. He saw the presence of iron pyrites as evidence that lightning had struck rocks containing pyrites. Yet objectively, the presence of iron pyrites in types of terrestrial stones would not necessarily rule out iron pyrites from an extraterrestrial source. Lavoisier was a great chemist, but still human. He saw what he wanted to see and that was sufficient. Such was the mindset that meteors observed to fall at 9:30 pm on Wednesday, July 24, 1790 in Southern France, along with a signed deposition by three hundred eyewitnesses, was ignored. Just a few years after the L’Aigle meteor shower, Thomas Jefferson is said to have dismissed an account of a meteorite observed to fall in the US.

Yet Biot’s investigation shows how science ideally works. Even if Jefferson knew of it and still didn’t believe it, it was a solid study. You could read the report to pick it apart; you could examine the meteorites. It wasn’t derived at by majority opinion. Two Yale professors, Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley, went to Weston, Connecticut intending to debunk a stone reported as falling from the sky on Monday, December 14, 1807, but were forced by the evidence and eyewitness accounts to conclude it was indeed a meteorite. Science goes where the evidence leads. Real science cares about the majority opinion about as much as every iron nickle meteorite that’s fallen after the French Academy of Sciences vote: Not one whit. Even Lavoisier had gone against the philogston theory when he argued combustion was caused by oxidation.

That makes me skeptical when someone argues “scientific consensus.” The French Academy of Sciences vote on meteorites was a consensus, too. And like those museums who threw out their meteorite collections, there’s always been those who want to sit at the “cool kids’” table and will say and do anything they think will get them there. What Biot did wasn’t consensus; it was science. So was Silliman and Kingsley’s investigation. What anyone thought about it was secondary to whether it was correct.

Note how it wasn’t done. Biot didn’t call for a march. Silliman and Kingsley didn’t address a crowd and bemoan that President Jefferson did not accept stones could fall from the sky and how the world would end as a result of his ignorance. That would be politics, not science. They could have denied it was politics all they pleased, but if their effort was to influence government policies, they would have become politicians.

What if those who insisted stones could not fall from the sky had chosen to apply political pressure? They could have claimed consensus; they could have pointed to the museums who had thrown out their meteorite collections; they could have pressured for studies to confirm the terrestrial origin of these stones called meteorites. Or, if they had won funding in the past, they could have pressured for more the same. Or they could oppose a government and use meteorites as an excuse. They could claim accepting that stones can fall from the sky was a return to superstition and anything else would mean the death of science. They could do all that and more, and never do any science at all.

You’ve obviously figured out I’m talking about the “March for Science” held on April 22, 2017. That was Earth Day, which pretty much told you where it was going.  Odd that an event supposedly about “science” sounded an awful lot like a political rally. Silliman and Kingsley could have held an anti-Jefferson rally, too (John Adams might would have funded it); but it wouldn’t have been science. Politics, yes; science, no.

Is the very concept of science as a method of inquiry becoming lost, forgotten in the quest for grants and justification of political ideologies? I wonder. Judging by those 18th Century museums that tossed their meteorites, the concept of science might have always been shakey. Cardinals elect popes; scientists do not, or should not, decide theories by ballot. Some years ago, when a US congressman questioned the validity of the data and analysis in a hearing on global warming, proponents didn’t try to demonstrate the methodology and data were sound. Instead, they essentially said “How dare you question us?” Whatever that is, it certainly isn’t science.

The great irony is those who marched and spoke for “science” did more damage to it than any US President, for the simple words “prove it” are at the very heart of the scientific method. “You must believe what we say” isn’t. Every sign, every marcher, every speech that day was a blow to the heart of what science is all about. Lost in all the politics – and make no mistake, that’s what it was – was the very basis of science itself.

Rocks fall from the sky regardless of consensus; theories are not proven by marches. You’d think they’d have figured it out by now. That they haven’t should concern us all.