Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Sylacauga meteorite: Mrs Hodges Struck and wounded

This image shows Ms Ann Hodges in hospital and clearly shows the severe bruising caused by the meteorite.

NB: An impact crater is called an "astrobleme."

Credit: Jay Leviton, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

60 years ago today, at 2:46 p.m. local time, a meteor burned over Sylacauga, Alabama.

Normally, this wouldn't be news, except that this fragment of interplanetary debris was pretty big, probably massing dozens of kilograms.

It broke up high over the ground, creating a fireball bright enough to be witnessed across three states.

Most of it became vapour and very small chunks, but one piece, with a mass of 3.9 kilos (8.5 pounds), survived its atmospheric entry.

Falling at terminal velocity, a couple of hundred kilometers per hour, it made it all the way to the ground.

Kinda, there were two things in its way: A house, and Ms Ann Hodges.

The rock (Sylacauga meteorite) slammed into the house, punching a hole in the roof.

Still moving rapidly, it hit a radio (at the time, a pretty large piece of furniture), careered off, and smacked into the hand and hip of Ms. Ann Hodges, who was napping on the couch nearby.

It left a fierce bruise on her side that. This event is the most well-documented case of a human hit by a meteorite in history.

Some believe the real story happened after Hodges was hit. There are some fairly complete articles about the aftermath at the Encyclopedia of Alabama and the Decatur Daily.

Basically, there was a big tussle over who owned the meteorite. Hodges and her husband were renting the house from one Birdie (or Bertie) Guy.

This picture shows the hole in the ceiling and the meteorite fragment held in the policeman's hand.

Mrs Hodges is standing next to the policeman.

Credit: Jay Leviton, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Legally, Guy owned the meteorite, since it landed on her property, but public opinion, unsurprisingly, sided with Hodges to keep it.

The legal wrestling went on for some time until Guy gave up the lawsuit, but by that time interest had waned, and no one wanted to buy the rock.

Hodges initially used it as a doorstop but eventually she donated it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, where it’s still on display in the Smith Hall, alongside the State Fossil of Alabama: Basilosaurus cetoides.

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