Friday, 15 February 2013

Museums that threw away their meteorite collections

Since I'm writing about meteorites, I thought I'd post this up. It's from something I wrote on the JREF forums some years ago.

Several times over the years, I've read the claim that in the late 18th century the scientific establishment so comprehensively rubbished the eye-witness reports of meteorites, that museums across Europe threw out their collections of meteorite specimens. Two examples of this are:

"So great was the prestige of the committee and so convincing its arguments that museums all over Western Europe threw away their meteorite specimens."
Chris Carter, “Parapsychology and the Skeptics”, 2007

“Museums all over Europe had thrown out their cherished meteorite specimens with the rubbish as humiliating reminders of a superstitious past. Today scarcely a single specimen is known that predates 1790, except for the 280-pound stone that fell in Alsace in 1492, that is kept in the town hall of Ensisheim, and that proved too heavy for even the Academie Francaise to dislodge.”
Richard Milton, “Alternative Science: Challenging the Myths of the Scientific Establishment”, 1996

And this claim pops up on the occasional web site as an example of why mainstream science can't be trusted. It was such an interesting claim, that I wanted to find out more.

A reference, when one is given, points us to Paneth, “Science and Miracle”, Durham University Journal, 1949. Keen to find out more about this travesty of science, I paid for a copy of the paper, where I read:

“it is a sad reflection that in those days many public museums threw away whatever they possessed of these precious meteorites; it happened in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Austria.”

So, not quite “all over Europe”, but across five countries. But still quite an event.

Still wanting to know more, I kept searching periodically until recently I found this quote from the book “Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History”, by John G. Burke (available on Google Books)

From Chapter 6:
“Chladni, in his Uber Feuer-Meteore (1819), decried the fact that some meteorites in collections were discarded in the eighteenth century, terming their removal “Enlightenment vandalism.” These acts, he wrote, occurred at five places: Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Bern and Verone; and they involved meteorites from two sixteenth-century and four seventeenth century falls”

So the claim has changed from a mass deletion of data entailing museums from across Europe, to it happening in just five museums, concerning the collections from six falls. Not so dramatic. Burke goes on to explain that museums didn't really exist in the way we understand them in the late 1700s, and he points out some questionable aspects of these collections, before adding:

“Yet of the twenty seven falls in the eighteenth century that are now considered to have actually occurred, specimens of eighteen (two thirds) still exist in collections.”

So if you do find yourself faced with someone who uses this as an example of how dishonest science is in the face of new data, you can explain to them how it's an example of how lazy new age writers are in chasing up their references.

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