Hot Rocks

I’ve seen occasional news reports about meteor trafficking for quite some time now, and if I’m perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure what to think about it all. On one hand, the prospect of important scientific discoveries being lost is bad news whichever way you look at it. On the other hand, who gets to claim ownership of something which falls from the sky?

Now, first off, I am one of those scientists who can benefit directly from meteorite research. Discovering complex chemicals inside meteorites is almost on par with finding them in space. When you’re studying the chemistry of something as unknown as the interstellar medium, believe me, helpful results are worth their weight in gold. The trouble is that, to a collector with enough money, the meteorites themselves can be worth more than gold.

So the big problem, as far as I can see, is that scientific researchers are now having to compete against private collectors for meteorite samples — and as anyone working at a university will tell you, funding isn’t always easy to come by. Collectors are likely to offer a higher bid. So is science really losing out?

I have to say, in my opinion, there’s an awful lot of melodrama surrounding this affair. The apparent “problem” is most evident in North Africa. Nomadic people comb the desert sands, where meteorites are easy to find. They then take these otherworldly stones to markets in cities like Nouadhibou, Mauritania to sell them on. So these people are simply collecting things which are freely available to all and selling them on to make a living. Branding them as “enemies of science”, then, seems a touch unjustified.

It’s questionable, though, how much science is actually losing out from all of this. After all, the potential for finding meteorites in the Sahara wasn’t actually realised until the 1980s. In fact, all of the news articles seem a little hazy about the whole thing. They refer to these people as smugglers, but they don’t seem to elaborate on how the act constitutes smuggling. Are there any actual restrictions on exporting meteorites from these countries? If not, I’m not sure any complaint is actually justifiable. You could just as easily argue that if those local scientists want to collect more meteorites, perhaps they should go on expeditions to find them. Or alternatively, perhaps they could make arrangements to purchase them from the nomads who collect them. Either way, simply saying “you can’t have that, because I want it” is a questionable ethic.

Meteorite collecting is nothing new, although it’s snowballing in popularity thanks to the internet. I’m loathe to use clichéed terms like “global marketplace,” but sites like ebay do make it very easy to sell meteorites worldwide. And although small fragments can sell for as low as £1 (if you know where to look), large collections are expected to sell for as much as half a million!

On the other hand, meteorites can be over 4 billion years old, predating planet Earth itself. Researching them is important. Particularly seeing as studying meteorites is a bit like playing a lottery. You never know quite what you might find. Every next one studied might provide some fantastic new insight into the formation of the solar system.

So… It seems we’re left with a question. Is space rock piracy really theft? Or is it just meteorite infringement?

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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6 Responses to Hot Rocks

  1. invaderxan says:

    Re: My knee-jerk reaction is “socialist”
    Eminent domain (aka compulsory purchase here in the UK) does seem a bit heavy handed in this particular instance, it has to be said… I think it would be wrong to sieze all meteorites. The question then would be, how would you know which ones are most important? Where would the distinction be drawn? There are, perhaps, too many gray areas without a lot more consideration.
    Your view of a perfect world seems a lot like mine, I must say. Maybe someday…

  2. maxdwolf says:

    My knee-jerk reaction is “socialist”
    My first thoughts are “well this is what eminent domain is for.” But that’s of course no entirely fair. Here in the U.S. at least the government is constitutionally required to offer fair restitution when it applies eminent domain. But how to determine what fair restitution is? That brings us back to the auction block and the price the government is unwilling to pay. In my view of a more perfect world there would be a great deal more funding for all the sciences and a great deal more interest on the part of the general public in seeing science done (though they do sort of go hand in hand).
    Of course I realize the whole notion of eminent domain and it’s specific application here could be a major discussion in and of itself even without discussing price.

  3. invaderxan says:

    You’re right, it’s exactly the same kind of problem. Highlighting the trouble with private collections of any variety. Museums and galleries are usually happy to give access to researchers. With collectors though, I suppose it depends on the individual… Though I’m sure the majority of them aren’t unreasonable people.
    An obligation to the public and to science? I wish more people felt that way…

  4. pax_athena says:

    This reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend of mine who is doing a PhD in art history and could not get to see the original of a work important for their research because it was in a private collection. Different things it’s about, but the same kind of problem. Perhaps certain things should only come with an obligation to make them accessible to the public (or the science) if needed …

  5. invaderxan says:

    A topic like this just lends itself to puns! :P

  6. nedu says:

    I’ve seen occasional news reports about meteor trafficking
    Sounds dangerous. :P

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