Meteorite: How Stones from Outer Space Made Our World by Tim Gregory
Meteorite: The Stones from Outer Space That Made Our World (2020), by Tim Gregory, does what the best popular science books do — uses a vibrant, engaging and distinctive voice to both broadly and deeply inform the lay reader without dumbing down the science down too much while placing it in historical context. Check, check, and check. I already can’t wait for what Gregory turns to in his next non-fiction work.
The title tells you all you need to know about the subject matter. This isn’t a “space” book; it’s all, and almost solely, about, meteorites: how they’re found, where they come from, how they impacted (literally and figuratively) the Earth, what they can tell us about our world, other planets, and the solar system’s creation. As tightly focused as it is, though, Gregory still makes room for some effectively brief digressions into more general astronomical/geological issues, such as star formation, the Big Bang, supernovas, the Earth’s makeup, crystal formation, gravity waves, and more.
Gregory begins in what at first seems a strange place, starting by describing the oldest human artwork and then continuing on to the oldest writing. We start to see where he’s going when he notes how this ancient writing was “first created by pressing symbols into clay tablets and chiseling them into stone tablets” so that “our acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the world … all began by recording them on rocks.” And there it is. The pivot point. “Rocks.” And so we turn to “another story written in rock … [not] by us [but] by Nature.” Gregory continues the metaphor, explaining how, “Each rock contains a single short story, but a sequence of rock contains a narrative … the story of our home planet. But the history of the Earth … is but a sub-lot of a far grander story arc … that begins farther back in time.” And the building blocks of that story are meteorites.
I love me a good metaphor, especially an extended one. And Gregory comes back to this language and imagery repeatedly (and successfully) throughout the book. And it’s just one example of his better-than-your-average-science-book style, a more polished, literary type of prose that makes Meteorite not just an informative work but one that is a pleasure to read.
Of course, a science book’s number one priority is to inform, and Gregory excels at that even more than he does in the writing style. In incredibly concise, efficient fashion, Gregory lucidly describes (in sharp, vivid detail) the various categories of meteorites, how it was first discovered that they were parts of asteroids (and then, for some, parts of the Moon or Mars), how their chemical and mineralogical makeup can be used to plumb the depths of our own rocky planet, how they can take us back in time to before the planets and even, for some, before the sun itself.
It’s all fascinating material laid out in crystal clear fashion. But Gregory, and through him the reader, never loses sight of the wonder for the facts. One way he conveys this is through the several colorfully described “falls”: stories of meteorites dropping from the sky (or plunging screaming through the air and then dropping). Sometimes to be picked up by the locals and turned into iron weapons that eventually appear, say, in the tomb of the young boy-king of Egypt. Sometimes to be the reason why dinosaurs still aren’t striding the Earth. Sometimes to give some poor (or incredibly lucky) woman a nasty bruise (one of the rare documents cases of a meteorite striking a person).
The wonder also shines through in Gregory’s enthusiastic optimism for humanity, for the future, and his constant astonishment at the universe. Here he is, for instance, on the small bits of rock in the earliest day of the Solar System avoiding destruction: “Of all the chance encounters that led to the present in which we find ourselves, the survival of the planetesimals from which Earth grew were some of the first. Our existence — the Earth and all life that inhabits it has been precarious from the beginning.”
His sense of the marvelous doesn’t occur only when looking backwards though; it exists as well as he gazes ahead in time toward the future, a brighter one than many perhaps assume: “It may well be the case that it is easier and wiser to settle on the surface of other worlds … Interplanetary human flight, and eventual habitation of other rocky worlds lies in our future … Science continues to give our species an excuse to be the best versions of ourselves. We can do anything we collectively put our minds to.”
Nice, especially in this 2020 year from hell, to end on such a positive note. Meteorites is Gregory’s first book, and based on it, he has a long and successful career ahead of him as a science popularizer. I can’t wait to see where he turns next. Highly recommended.