Five-billion-year-old rock quarrymen didn't expect

THERE was a rumble of thunder and then a bolt from the sky struck the earth with such force onlookers thought Judgment Day itself had come.

Scotland’s first recorded sighting of a meteorite in 1804 stunned workers at the High Possil Quarry in Glasgow.

But after scientists came to investigate the lump of curious black rock unearthed by workmen, it proved to be the final proof that rocks did indeed come from outer space.

Previously it had been thought meteor strikes were the result of stones thrown up by freak weather conditions like tornadoes or water-spouts or were the result of God’s wrath.

But a spate of observed meteor strikes at the turn of the 19th century, including the High Possil case, finally convinced scientists what was really happening.

A fragment of the meteorite, as old as the solar system itself at nearly five billion years, will go on display at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum from Friday to celebrate the bicentenary.

It was the morning of 5 April, 1804, when a series of bangs was heard between Falkirk and Glasgow. A short time later, a smoking trail crashed into the ground at High Possil, witnessed by a group of workmen and other witnesses, including two boys and a dog.

The quarrymen found a hole about 18in deep and 15in wide, and at the bottom there was a black rock, which they threw aside as they had been expecting to find a cannonball.

But later a party of professors from the University of Glasgow, together with the landowner, interviewed the witnesses, and recovered parts of the stone.

It was subsequently examined by scientists in Scotland and England and recognised as a meteorite.

There had been previous falls in Yorkshire in 1795 and at l’Aigle in France in 1803, but early scientists who claimed stones did fall from the sky were dismissed as cranks.

Dr John Faithfull, the curator of geology at the Hunterian, said: "This was one of the very first meteorites that was known to be a meteorite. After the one in Yorkshire, one guy got obsessed with the idea but people thought he was mad. But after the ones in France and High Possil, it became accepted thunderbolts and everything else had nothing to do with it."

Dr Faithfull is examining whether there are tiny particles of material from before the formation of the solar system.

"This particular kind of meteorite is one of the very oldest things on earth. They are about the same age as the formation of the solar system and sometimes you can find tiny diamonds which are older even than the solar system."

Asteroids, the larger version of meteors, are now thought to have caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, and earlier this month mankind had its closest known encounter with an asteroid when a 100ft-wide piece of rock came within 26,500 miles of the Earth.

A newspaper report from the time described how the impact of the Possil meteorite was witnessed by workmen, boys, a man up a tree and a dog. It was heard "to resemble four reports from the firing of cannon, afterwards the sound of a bell, or rather of a gong, with a violently whizzing noise".

The newspaper reported: "The dog, on hearing the noise, ran home, seemingly in a great fright. The [quarry] overseer, during the continuance of the noise, on looking up to the atmosphere, observed in it a misty commotion, which occasioned in him a considerable alarm. He called out to the man on the tree: ‘Come down, I think there is some judgment coming upon us’, and says that the man on the tree had scarcely got upon the ground, when something struck with great force ... splashing mud and water for about twenty feet around."

John Davies, of Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory, said the loud bangs in the sky could well have been caused by the meteor breaking the sound barrier.

"Huge amounts of material arrives from space every day. Most of it is very fine material that burns up in the atmosphere. But grapefruit-sized objects can survive and reach the ground," he said.

"This does happen fairly regularly, but a lot of it lands in the sea, in uninhabited areas or at night.

"No-one has ever been killed by a meteorite that we know about, but there was a lady in Alabama in the 1950s who was hit. She got a nasty bruise on her leg after one came through the roof."

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