Science Friday Presents: ‘Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Meteorite’
Many people in Chicago probably remember the day meteorites, or space rocks, fell from the sky. It’s known as the “Park Forest Meteor Shower” but it wasn’t the kind you stay up at night to watch streaking across the sky. Around midnight on March 27th, 2003, a meteorite exploded into pieces, showering the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois. People reported seeing stones falling through roofs and causing damage to homes. Some residents even thought they were under attack.
[The first major underwater film starred—you guessed it—a giant mechanical octopus.]
In the aftermath of the event, meteorite hunters and dealers descended on Park Forest looking to buy the rocks, creating a meteorite frenzy. But that didn’t stop Meenakshi Wadhwa, former curator of meteorites at the Chicago Field Museum, from getting her hands on one of these prized space rocks for the museum’s collection. Hear Ira and Chicago comedians Jimmy Adameck, Ross Taylor, and Jen Connor bring the event to life on stage in a play with musical scoring by Mary Mahoney.
Meenakshi Wadhwa is director of the Center for Meteorite Studies and professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
Jimmy Adameck is a comedian based in Chicago, Illinois.
Jen Connor is a comedian based in Chicago, Illinois.
Ross Taylor is a comedian based in Chicago, Illinois.
Mary Mahoney is a comedian and pianist based in Chicago, Illinois.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow coming to you from the Harris theater in Chicago. Now I want to tell you a story about something that happened here in Chicago back in 2003. A meteor shower, like most Chicagoans have probably never seen before. Now you know you go outside at night sometimes you see this little streak in the sky, a shooting star. But this time an actual load of rocks came falling down one night just outside of town. And to hero of this story, of course, is a scientist, after all this is Science Friday. Her name is Meenakshi Wadhwa, and she used to be the curator of meteorites at the Chicago Field Museum, in other words, she was a space rock scientist. But even after years of studying these meteorites, she never actually saw one fall from space.
MEENAKSHI WADHWA: As somebody who studies meteorites of course it’s your dream to be someplace where you see a meteorite fall and to actually go and pick up fresh rocks that had just been in space.
IRA FLATOW: But it just so happens that back in March of 2003, Meenakshi was in luck, a meteorite exploded into pieces showering the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois.
MEENAKSHI WADHWA: I think it was around midnight that it fell.
IRA FLATOW: Now you would think that Meenakshi, a professional meteorite hunter would be ready and primed for such an event of a lifetime, scanning the skies for streaks of light every night, well not so much.
MEENAKSHI WADHWA: I completely missed it, slept through the whole thing.
IRA FLATOW: That’s right, she found out about the meteor shower the way everyone else who didn’t live in Park Forest did, on the radio driving into work the next morning.
MEENAKSHI WADHWA: It was all over the news, there was all kinds of reports about people having seen stones falling through their roofs and creating damage. And this is amazing to me, I was like oh my god I missed this big event.
IRA FLATOW: You know you can tell she’s a scientist because her immediate reaction to hearing about these space rocks causing damage to people’s homes, it was not, I hope they have insurance, but rather I can’t believe I missed this. Well, by the time Meenakshi actually gets to work, everybody is talking about this meteorite shower stories are coming in about how the residents of Park Forest have reacted to the events of the night before.
And it wasn’t hey, this was cool, we’ve all been part of a rare astronomical event, no way.
MEENAKSHI WADHWA: Apparently when it happened at midnight, a lot of people at the time thought that maybe we were under attack, because there were these stones that were hitting roofs. And they called the police, and the police came and got these rocks.
IRA FLATOW: Ah, those rocks. Just the thought sent her brain into overdrive. Being the curator of meteorites at the famous Chicago Field Museum Meenakshi Wadhwa was desperate to get her hands on one of these space rocks, what a prize for the museum’s collection. But alas she could not, they belong to the good folks of Park Forest.
MEENAKSHI WADHWA: People who found these meteorites in their yard, they own those rocks. And so they were able to sell these rocks to the person who was offering them the most amount of money for them. And of course, there were all kinds of people looking for these meteorites.
IRA FLATOW: There were dealers and collectors, amateur meteorite hunters descended on this Chicago suburb.
MEENAKSHI WADHWA: They were offering many of the residents lots of cash to buy their samples, and people wanted to acquire them, and so the offered price for these meteorites was definitely getting astronomical.
IRA FLATOW: It was your typical space rock bubble. Meenakshi was frustrated, she couldn’t match what other people were offering. She tried explaining that it was for science, no dice. So how was she going to get her hands on one of these rocks? Well this is the most interesting part of a really great, great story.
Hey, hey, hey, how, who are you guys? I’m in the middle of telling a story here.
ROSS TAYLOR: Well thank you for asking. We are three comedians, and a piano player, and we met all of each other while working at Chicago’s second city.
IRA FLATOW: You’re even clapping for yourself.
JEN CONNOR: Well that’s how it works in Chicago, we really like your story, Ira, but it needs a little something. You may know radio, but we know comedy.
JIMMY ADAMECK: Yeah you’re pretty smart with all your science talk, but you need to reach everyday people.
JEN CONNOR: And everyday people want drama. They want to laugh, they want to cry, they want to feel something.
ROSS TAYLOR: And so the following story is based upon true events. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and liberties have been taken to maximize entertainment value.
JEN CONNOR: So what do you think Ira? We wrote you part. What do you think audience? Do you want to see a play starring Ira?
IRA FLATOW: All right, what the hell let’s do this thing.
JIMMY ADAMECK: Great, now you’re new to this so try to get some laughs out there.
IRA FLATOW: I’ll do my best. OK.
March 27, 2003. George W. Bush leads US forces into a brief skirmish with Iraq, rapper 50 Cent tops the pop charts with In Da Club, and more relevant to a science radio show, a meteor shower rains down on suburban Illinois. It’s midnight, shooting stars pierce the sky, as bright as Lance Armstrong’s racing career, and falling just as fast.
Presidents awake in the night, frightened and confused. What was that noise? It must have been a thunderstorm.
JIMMY ADAMECK: It sounded like a sonic boom, it must be the Iraqis, were under attack. Don’t be silly, it’s clearly God, the rapture is here.
IRA FLATOW: Those are actually two responses from real citizens, as reported by the Chicago Tribune.
JEN CONNOR: Everyone become calm, it’s just a meteor shower, trust me I’m a scientist. Thank you. As a scientist, I am used to applause, now show me that meteorites.
IRA FLATOW: Meteorites fell across three communities including the home of a 48 year old steelworker from Park Forest, a five pound rock punched a hole through his roof and ceiling landing in a second floor bedroom.
JIMMY ADAMECK: That thing could have hit me in the head. I’m sleeping, and all of a sudden there’s this big flash of light, sounded like thunder. Dogs barking like crazy, the wife tells me get out there see what happened. So I go to check the damages, the windows, the ceiling, the blinds we bought it Menard’s, all destroyed. And then there’s this rock just sitting there all quiet, I didn’t know what to do, so I called the cops. They were no help, they told me I have a geology problem.
IRA FLATOW: What the construction worker did not realize was that the meteorite was worth a small fortune.
ROSS TAYLOR: Say there friend, have falling space rocks got you feeling topsyturvy? Are you tired of meteor showers destroying your literal showers? Well allow me to introduce myself, I’m a buyer of falling objects. Some folks flipping houses, well I flip rocks. If it fell from the sky, I will buy it.
JIMMY ADAMECK: You told me you’ll give me money for this thing?
ROSS TAYLOR: Not only will I purchase your rock, but I’ll purchase anything the rock has touched, your roof, your ceilings, your pillow.
JIMMY ADAMECK: Will you take my son? He wants to be a professional e-gamer.
ROSS TAYLOR: Sorry friend, I don’t people unless they fell from the sky. So let’s get down to business some shoestring scientist is going to come in here and try to offer you $1 a gram for this thing, but I’m going to offer the big bucks $20 a gram.
JIMMY ADAMECK: Grams? I don’t do metric, what’s that in American?
ROSS TAYLOR: $48,000 in a briefcase.
JIMMY ADAMECK: Holy friolli, thank God for acts of God.
JEN CONNOR: Wait, don’t sell!
ROSS TAYLOR: Who are you?
JEN CONNOR: I am a scientist.
Thank you, that almost makes the college debt worth it.
ROSS TAYLOR: Well look here scientist, you’re fouling up my sale.
JEN CONNOR: Sir, please. Chicago’s Field Museum needs your meteorite for science.
JIMMY ADAMECK: This guy’s offering $48,000, what are you offering?
JEN CONNOR: A lot less. But it’s for the good of mankind, what do you plan to do with this meteorite Mr. Salesman?
ROSS TAYLOR: None of your beeswax, lab coat.
JEN CONNOR: Dodged the question, eh?
ROSS TAYLOR: I need a new paperweight.
JEN CONNOR: A $48,000 paper weight? Get out of here. He’s going to turn around and resell to the highest bidder. Sir, please, I need this meteorite so we can learn more about our solar system and how it was formed. It’s not just an object or an asset.
Rock. Romans called it petram, la roche say the French, and Spanish rock. Meteorites are heirlooms the universe passes on to her children, not some trinket to be hawked on Antiques Roadshow. Mr. Salesman who are you to buy and sell these natural wonders? As Twisted Sister once said, I want to rock, your rock, hit it Mary.
[SINGING] Knowledge gives us power, and space gave us a meteor shower. Research ca tell us something new, I’ll publish an article for peer review. Science, science, science, science, science out of rocks.
JIMMY ADAMECK: That was a pretty persuasive song but I’m going to go with the briefcase full of cash.
ROSS TAYLOR: Thank you.
JEN CONNOR: Please reconsider, I’ll sing it again.
JIMMY ADAMECK: No thanks my wife loves cash, I’m going to Portillo’s.
ROSS TAYLOR: Sweet naive scientist, your lofty ideals will never compete with capitalism. Money the Romans call it moolah. And as dire straits once said, money for nothing and chicks for free. Hit it Mary
OK, Mary if you don’t play, I look like a jerk over here.
MARY: That’s right.
ROSS TAYLOR: You know what, doesn’t matter, because I won. And now I’m going to sell this thing to some sucker for twice what it’s worth. I am smarter than a scientist.
JEN CONNOR: Citizens, boo this man.
IRA FLATOW: Those events actually occurred 15 years ago, and the last we heard the salesman has yet to resell the meteorite.
ROSS TAYLOR: Don’t listen to these naysayers, why the meteorite bubble is just about to re-inflate. Don’t invest in gold or bitcoin. Why the smartest investment in the world is space rock. Why are you sir, you can afford a ticket in the front row. Wouldn’t this look great on your mantle? Mmm un-interested, forget you. How about you ma’am, you’re wearing a lovely dress, don’t you want something to pass on to your kids? You’re looking behind you. How about you Ira, you’re a Public Radio millionaire, how’s about an anniversary present for the missus?
IRA FLATOW: Take a hike, I don’t want it.
So the space rock fever eventually dies down, which was bad for our salesman friend over here, but was great for the scientist in our story. Prices fell enough that Meenakshi was able to acquire portions of the Park Forest meteorites, which are currently on display at the Chicago Field Museum.
JEN CONNOR: For science!
IRA FLATOW: And that brings to a close our space rock this evening. Thanks to Meenakshi Wadhwa for sharing her story with us tonight. And let’s thank a big round of applause for actors, Jimmy Meenakshi Wadhwa, Jen Connor, Ross Taylor, musical director Mary Mahoney and our own Rachel [INAUDIBLE].
Thank you all, it was great. Weren’t they great.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. That’s about all the time we have. Our heartfelt thanks to WBEZ Podcast Passport Series for hosting us. To Tyler Green, Simon Tren, Izzy Smith, Casey Stevenson, Maury Ollieo, and everyone else at the station for making us feel so welcome, thank you all. And thanks to the amazing staff here at the Harris Theater. For making this wonderful evening possible. And also to Jim Holstein and Meenakshi Wadhwa for their meteorite smarts, and to Alexandra Solomon and the team at Curious City. And I cannot leave out our terrific Science Friday staff. It takes a lot of people behind the scenes to run the ship, thanks to all of them. Mathematician and pianist Eugenia Chang will play out the show with a piece. In Chicago, I’m Ira Flatow.
EUGENIA CHANG: Thanks I’m just going to play a little goofy cute little piece by Debussy called Minstrels. Which he wrote when he was in England and I think he had just finished writing La Mer, which is a very serious lushest amazing grand piece of music. And this is a little vignette and it’s called Minstrels because he saw some musicians on the seafront, and you might say he’s making fun of them, but I think he’s just making fun of all of us. Because I think that often musicians, we take ourselves too seriously. And we take ourselves seriously, it’s kind of a ridiculous thing to be doing. I’m playing this cut off tree thing with metal inside, all this stuff when, I’m hitting it. It’s not like singing, which is a really natural thing to do. And I think that mathematicians sometimes take themselves too seriously, as well. And that we should just not take ourselves so seriously. So I wanted to share this piece with you it’s sort of making fun of ourselves, I think. That’s just my opinion.
[MUSIC- DEBUSSY- “MINSTRELS”]
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.