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  • Meirion Harries

DAY EIGHTY FOUR A Meteor Of Fire

Vanish in flame, Salamander!

Rush together in foam, Undine!

Shine with meteor-gleam, Sylph!

Bring help to the home, Incubus! Incubus!

Go before and end it thus!


And, from a louder table:


Thou wert swift, O Morar! as a roe on the desert: terrible as a meteor of fire.


They know their Goethe in Munich. We heard stanzas from every quarter last night during supper. (Mind you, the chef, Jan Harwig, was inspirational - glazed sweetbreads, razor clams, sake & caviar butter, an offering that rebuts Goethe's assertion that '... all our energies are wasted in providing for mere necessities, which have no further end than to prolong a wretched existence'.)


The excitement was the news that the largest ever German meteor had been found in a cupboard in Blaubeuren, the little town near Augsburg that we cycled past unknowingly a few days ago. The rock, if I may demean it, was an obstacle when Hansjörg Bayer was laying a new pipe in his garden, so he dug it out, intending to dispose of it.


Relative to its size, it was massively heavy (30.26 kg/66.7 lbs) which gave him pause, so he put it in a cupboard. Clearly, Herr Bayer was curious – he had kept the rock since 1989 - but this week, he made up his mind to do something and rang the German Aerospace Centre. They were delighted to have it, tweeting Wir haben diesen 30 kg Brocken angeschnitten – was wir gefunden haben ist sensationell! (We've cut up this 30kg chunk - what we have found is sensational!) And their excitement was compounded when they found another 410 gram piece close by.


The Blaubeuren Meteor (c)dw


The last time there was this much astronomical excitement was when a large meteor exploded over Mad King Ludwig's fantasy castle, Neuschwanstein. That familiar Disney image of a shower of lights over turrets and battlements was real for a few moments on 6 April 2002. A spectacular trail through the night sky shattered into falling orange fragments: but the most extraordinary thing was the blast. A huge explosion echoed out 100 kilometres from Neuschwanstein – across Munich and on to Nuremberg.


Neuschwanstein Castle (c)schwangau.de


For German scientists, this was a special moment. In 1968 they had invested a great deal of money in constructing 15 new observation platforms for the European Fireball Network and this was their first German-bound meteor. A Czech initiative from the 1950s, the Network provides detailed analysis and photographs (some 10,000 a year) of meteors hitting Europe. So we know that the Neuschwanstein meteor entered the earth's atmosphere at 46,000 mph at an angle of 49 degrees. At the time of the explosion, it was 10 miles up and had slowed to 5,400 mph. The fragments fell for 108 seconds, hitting the ground at 170 mph.


This information may not seem of practical value – unless you are looking for those fragments. On the day following the blast, the area was flooded with amateurs (who did not have the data) and scientists (who did). Some of the amateurs were undoubtedly just interested but others would have been looking for profit: three grams of an iron-nickel meteorite sells for about ten dollars. The Blaubeuren Meteor weighed 30.26 kilograms – so eleven thousand dollars. A 5.5 kg rock displaced from the moon by a meteor which travelled to earth sold recently for £500,000. There are serried ranks of professional hunters and apparently Morocco is the best place for finding meteors.


You would have thought that those with the data would have been able to find the most fragments - but the initial searches were frustrating failures. Success came in the form of a maths academic who looked at the direction and speed of the wind that day in the troposphere. His calculations brought an instant find.


They don't know when the Blaubeuren meteor buried itself in Hansjörg Bayer's garden. Given the noise and flare of such a substantial object, it is possible that this was a meteor that Durer saw and heard. In 1498 he made a woodcut that that is said to record the meteor shower from six years earlier over the town of Ensisheim in Alsace, some 250 kilometres west of Durer's atelier. The woodcut was one of fifteen scenes from the Book of Revelation that Durer published in Nuremberg in 1498 in his famous Apocalypse with Pictures series.


The opening of the fifth and sixth seals from Durer's Apocalypse (c)wikicommons


Granted that six years elapsed before Durer finished gouged out the woodcuts for his Apocalypse series and that Ensisheim is over 250 kilometres away, the notion of Durer's meteor being the one under Herr Bayer's lawn still has appeal. The German Aerospace Centre is currently dating their treasure, so I have a little while before this theory is trashed.


Incidentally, we still have the Blaubeuren meteorite: the priest placed it in the church with a wonderfully enigmatic inscription: De hoc lapide multi multa omnes aliquid nema satis - many have spoken of this stone; all said something; nobody has said enough.


We shouldn't end without mentioning Sigmar Polke who in the early 1960s had founded Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism) with Gerhard Richter. Experimental and avant garde in his work, Polke ventured into dangerous territory. In a quest to make his art more 'harmful', he painted with pigments like Orpiment and Realgar (arsenic sulphides) and Schweinfurt Green (copper arsenite) – and even used glowing uranium-based compounds.


Less dangerous, but perhaps more remarkable, are two of his paintings: one, The spirits that lend strength are invisible II, was created by scattering meteorite dust onto resin. For another, he made his own pigment from a kilogram of the Tocopilla meteorite - thought to be from the core of a small planet crushed in the early days of the Solar System.


Sigmar Polke's Tocopilla meteorite painting (c)orpiment.wordpress.com


Not all meteorites are dull rocks: some are natural artworks and are collected as such. The image below was described by Christie's as 'one of the most beautiful meteorites in the world' - translucent crystals of olivine and peridot suspended in a nickel-iron matrix. And only £8,000.


(c)Christie's



The story (in German) of the Blaubeuren meteor - https://youtu.be/N7ymUZcHrMs


Neuschwanstein Castle - https://youtu.be/kGJqj_D6PSE


80 minute lecture on Durer's Apocalypse - https://youtu.be/R6ilOJG1nQs


Five minute Tate film on Sigmar Polke - https://youtu.be/0GE30hI8X78


Comets, meteors and asteroids explained - https://youtu.be/ToPBxyYDDDQ


Christie's history of meteorites - https://www.christies.com/features/Meteorites-Works-of-art-from-outer-space-7203-3.aspx?sc_lang=en&lid=1


Phil Collins Something in the air tonight - https://youtu.be/MN3x-kAbgFU











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