Meteorites and mediators of material culture

Ensisheim meteorite in the town's museum

On Friday, our Principal Investigator Simon Schaffer spoke during the conference 'The Location of Knowledge' at CRASSH about, among other things, the Ensisheim meteorite of 1492 - the oldest known meteorite with a confirmed date of arrival on Earth. Professor Schaffer related the fascinating tale of how the perception and treatment of the meteorite fluctuated over the centuries in response to changing beliefs about the origins of such 'rocks' and about the dangers of 'fetishizing' them through the attribution of heavenly origins. He also discussed the common albeit problematic concept of objects like this 'speaking', either for themselves or through mediators. The fact that some 'mediators' for historical meteorites, who either found them or saw their fireballs in the sky, were disbelieved in part because they were 'peasants in the field' set me thinking about modern and early modern mediators of material culture.

I would argue that today science and technology are often viewed as the primary mediators for material objects, with some interesting results. An example is the case of the famous meteorite ALH84001, which Simon also mentioned during his talk. David McKay (who sadly passed away last month) and other scientists at NASA and collaborating institutions announced during the 1990's that it contained possible proof of extraterrestrial life. President Clinton even described it at the time as 'speaking' to us. While the photograph below, depicting conceivably microorganism-like structures within the meteorite, was constantly shown during this period by NASA and the media - it was clear that morphology alone was not going to provide definitive proof of fossil life. As is so often the case, the general public had to wait for 'the scientists' to do their mystical thing, which was in this case chemical analysis and attempted laboratory recreations of the observed structures, in order to try to prove or disprove the ET hypothesis.

The microscopic structures in meteorite ALH84001 which, during the 1990s, some scientists claimed were remnants of extraterrestrial 'nanobacteria'.

This is the way in which so many inanimate things are made to 'speak' today, whether it be a billions year-old star being analyzed at a distance by spectroscopy, a millennia-old skeleton being examined through physical anthropology, or particles being newly identified through experiments with a particle accelerator or collider. These dynamics are in part interesting because it often seems as if people grant 'science and technology' far more automatic credibility than they do individual human mediators, even though science is of course conducted and technology is operated by fallible human beings. Exceptions include when questions are raised about the skill and intent of specific human operators behind the curtain, such as when DNA profilers and forensic anthropologists are accused of incompetence by defense lawyers, or when scientific colleagues bring charges of poor practice or interpretation against their fellows. (See the recent debate over the Polonnaruwa 'meteorite' for a fitting example, and the notices of publication and research retractions on Retraction Watch.)

The tendency to view 'science and technology' as an objective and truthful mediator for inanimate objects wasn't as strong during the early modern period as it is today. Some technologies were seen as being more precise and dependable than others, like the instruments made and sold by John Bird, a frequent collaborator of the Board of Longitude who was internationally renowned for his precision-dividing of instrument scales. Yet, even Bird's instruments required periodic adjustments, repairs and adaptations, as well as checking by third parties at times like the trialling of John Harrison's marine timekeepers. Instrumentation was not really standardized, universally sophisticated, or physically stable and robust enough to be conceived of as broadly superior to human judgement, despite later moves during the lifetime of the Board towards standardization of instruments and timekeepers and of practice. It was usually the testimonials of individual luminaries such as Isaac Newton and the Astronomers Royal and of experienced practitioners such as working navigators which carried the most weight, rather than the fruits of research and observation and of technology use per se. This was true during the planning of trials and activities and during the judging of proposals - but also when trusted experts passed judgment on the quality and meaning of data sets of varying completeness, precision and believability.

Image credits: Ensisheim meteorite - Wikipedia, ALH84001 meteorite - NASA.