An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine
This feature is devoted each month to one of the personalities within the meteorite community. This month we are delighted to share an interview we had with Geoff Notkin of Aerolite Meteorites, Campo Meteorites, Meteorite Adventures and now Meteorite Men.
What or who got you interested in meteorites and how old were you when you got your first meteorite?
It's an involved story,
and a long one, and there were quite a few players. Although my parents were
American, England was my home until I was nearly twenty. My father was involved
in international trade and often traveling. On those rare occasions when he was
at home, and the night sky in southern England was clear so that you could
actually see something, he loved to take his refracting telescope out into the
garden. I remember many instances, when I was very young, of being awakened by
my father around 2 am, getting bundled up and carried outside to the telescope.
My mother would be a bit concerned and say "But it's the middle of the night."
Dad would gently insist
that seeing four of Jupiter's moons at the same time was more important than
sleep or school and I, of course, agreed with him (I still do). So, from a very
early age I had a strong association with astronomy. I was also obsessed with
rocks and fossils. At age four and five I would insist on having "The Golden
Wonder Book of
Astronomy" and "The Collins Field Guide to Fossils" and that sort of thing for
my bedtime reading. I must have been a pretty weird kid, but to me science was
always much more interesting than school or toys. My mother used to joke that
she'd learned Latin because I was constantly asking her how to pronounce the
names of fossils and
dinosaurs from my reference books.
When my father was away on business -- which seemed like most of the time when I was little -- my mom had to find ways to keep me occupied, and so we were forever getting on the train and going up to Kensington to visit The Natural History Museum and The Geological Museum (they were separate institutions at the time). I tell you I could never get enough of those museums. I spent so much time in the Hall of Minerals, and when you got the end of that, there was The Hall of Meteorites. One of the centerpieces in the collection was the big 198 kg Imilac pallasite -- the largest ever found -- which had been donated to the museum in 1879. Imilac would play a prominent role in my involvement with the meteorite field, but we'll get to that later.
In a low-lit room tucked away at the back of the second floor were these giant, dark irons with mysterious shapes, and they actually came from outer space! What a revelation for for a kid who was fascinated by astronomy. I could barely come to terms with the idea. It seemed unbelievably alien, beyond ordinary comprehension, and perhaps even a bit frightening that they were from "out there," from the unknown depths of space. And a little boy like me could actually touch them! How did they get to Earth, and were there more of them waiting to be found somewhere? I was entranced. I was certain it would be just about the ultimate achievement of one's life to actually find a meteorite. I used to daydream about it. It seemed almost impossibly difficult, but I had little doubt that one day I would manage, somehow, to find one. When I was about six years old and we were on holiday on Cape Cod, I even dug a round hole on a hill top and put some ashes and burned stuff in the bottom and pretended it was a meteorite crater (yes, at some point just about everyone thought they were "burning hot" when they landed).
As I got older I continued to study earth sciences, but always for my own enjoyment. My British public school didn't offer any geology or astronomy courses, although they were heavy on physical geography, physics, and chemistry. It seems a silly mistake now, but at age six I became exuberant after being told that we would spend a few weeks studying meteorology at school. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that "meteorology" was the study of weather, not meteorites.
After graduation I worked as a geologist for a year with an American oil exploration company based in London, but it was dull. We were doing lab work, and I just wanted to be out in the field looking for fossils and meteorites.
went by and meteorites and paleontology remained among my many interests. I'd
found a few Canyon Diablos during a trip through the Southwest and read O.
Richard Norton's excellent "Rocks from Space" which filled in a lot of gaps in
my knowledge, but until 1996 I had absolutely no idea that this whole subculture
of meteorite nuts existed (I mean that in a nice way). It was my good friend
Steve Arnold of International Meteorite Brokerage who introduced me to the world
of meteorite collectors. He and I met through somewhat odd circumstances: I'd
filled out one of those "user profiles" that seemed appealing back when the web
was pretty small and you only knew a few people that even had an email account.
I'd listed my hobbies -- not entirely seriously -- as "fossils, meteorites,
fireworks, and scotch whisky." Well, Steve being the tireless entrepreneur that
he is, did a search for people who mentioned the word "meteorite" in their
profiles, and sent me an email. We started corresponding, and within a few
months had decided to organize an expedition to Imilac, Vaca Muerta, and
Monturaqui in Chile's Atacama Desert.
I wrote an account of that adventure for for Joel Schiff's "Meteorite" magazine, and it was published in two parts (May 1998 and August 1998). We found a lot of Imilacs. Most of them were on the small side, but half of a 200 gram individual that Steve found remains one of the prizes of my entire collection. My friends though it extremely odd that I was going into the deep desert with a metal detector to look for meteorites. When I told one of them that we were departing for the Atacama in search of meteorites she said, "Why . . . are they more likely to fall there?"
So, yes, I'd found a few nice meteorites at Canyon Diablo and Imilac, but I still wasn't actively involved in the field. It was sort of a solitary hobby. It seemed such a far-out area of interest (literally) that I didn't imagine for a minute that a whole cadre of like-minded enthusiasts existed.
Some months after the Imilac adventure I happened to visit the Smithsonian on a day when Tim McCoy was giving a lecture on meteoritics. One of Tim's associates passed around a piece from the Smithsonian's collection for the audience to examine. It was a really nice Henbury, Maybe about a kilo, and covered with regmaglypts. I was sitting right at the back of the auditorium, and therefore the very last person to get hold of the iron, which was sealed up in a thick plastic baggie. I stared at it, and just kept on staring. It was the first time I'd ever held an iron with that red patina on it. I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. A good five minutes must have gone by, and I was still holding on to it. Tim's associate was watching me -- perhaps a bit nervously. He didn't take his eyes off me for a second. I was with my girlfriend, and she whispered into my ear -- jokingly, of course -- "You're not going to run out of here with that are you?" Eventually, the gentleman came over and took the Henbury out of my hands -- graciously and with a nice smile -- but I think he was relieved to get it back into the vault. Something in my head had clicked, and I just had to have a meteorite like that.
After returning home I did a search on the internet to see if Maybe I could find out some information about Henburys. I was astonished to discover that there were a couple of websites where you could buy meteorites. At the time, there were very few commercial dealers online. Of course, nobody had any Henburys, but I caught up with some eventually. The first pieces that I actually bought were a nice Canyon Diablo and Gibeon from Erik Twelker. Steve Arnold introduced me to Blaine Reed and Al Mitterling, and I guess my fate was pretty much sealed by then.
What was your first meteorite?
Like my friends Jim Kriegh and Twink Monrad, I found my own first meteorite. Mine was a Canyon Diablo, and it was disconcertingly easy. This was years ago before the Barringer empire's clampdown on hunting at the crater. I was traveling through Arizona and decided to make a detour to the crater. I'd wanted to see it for years, but I figured the chances of actually finding anything were nil. We went to the visitor center, which is quite disappointing with the tacky gift shop and everything, and then went for a drive around. They didn't have a "No trespassing" sign every two feet like they do today, so we just took our truck off the road at some point and drove around on dirt tracks. We stopped somewhere -- quite a few miles from the crater -- and right away I found all these tiny little rusty metal flecks on the surface. I said, "These can't possibly be pieces of the meteorite, can they? They're all over the place." And then I saw a fragment about the size of a business card. By some odd chance we had a magnet in the car and this flat piece of weathered metal just jumped on to the magnet. Within about half an hour we'd found a good piece a little over 1,500 grams. It was pretty weathered but still a great find for a novice.
Do you still have it?
What do you think? I just took it out to weigh it, so I could answer the previous question.
Do you have special areas of interest that you focus on in regards to meteorites (thin sections, photography, chemistry, age dating.. etc)?
I've been a writer and photographer for many years, so it was natural for my interest in meteorites to branch out into those areas. After the 1997 expedition to Imilac, I contacted Joel Schiff at "Meteorite" and asked him if he might be interested in receiving a submission from me about the trip. He was very enthusiastic and said, "Of course, we'd love to see it." I've been writing regularly for him ever since, and have produced two articles about Gold Basin; one on the original Odessa meteorite hunters; a feature on Steve Schoner and the Glorieta Mountain pallasite; and various stories. Joel and I have become good friends, and my professional relationship with the magazine remains one of the most satisfying aspects of my life. Some of your readers will also know that I'm an Art Director and web developer by profession, and I design and manage a number of meteorite-related websites.
In 2000 -- at the suggestion of Darryl Pitt, and with Joel Schiff's support -- I designed a whole new look for "Meteorite": A new logo; a new cover layout. Joel and I worked on it for months. There were 16 sets of designs. Not 16 designs, I mean 16 completely different concepts each with many variants. It took us a long time to get it right, but I'm very happy with the results. "Meteorite" has come a long way, and Joel deserves a lot of credit. He's a university professor, and runs that magazine in his spare time. It's very admirable. I periodically tease him that he should quit his job and go into publishing full time. Then we could have a monthly magazine!
As a web developer, the way in which the internet and the meteorite community intersect is of considerable interest to me. You guys (Paul and Jim) provide a great service with The Meteorite Exchange, and The Meteorite-Times. And so does Art Jones with Meteorite Central and the Meteorite Mailing List. These virtual meeting places create an international community without geographical or political boundaries -- a sort of clubhouse if you will -- that bring academics, collectors, and enthusiasts together in a way that would have seemed like science fiction to most of us less than ten years ago.
Does your Family share in your interest in meteorites?
I was lucky enough to have brilliant and supportive parents who took an interest in almost everything that I did. They were politely interested in my meteorite collection. My girlfriend of many years -- Jackie Ho -- who was a team member of the Imilac expedition also has a moderate interest in the field. She does actively share my interest in fossils, and has made some excellent finds. She's said to me a few times, "Can't we get a piece of that one with the beautiful pattern that Darryl had?" (She's talking about Portales Valley).
Do you have any special approaches to collecting?
I have some accomplished friends who are type collectors and I mean absolutely no disrespect to them when I say that type collecting doesn't do anything for me personally. I like meteorites that LOOK like meteorites. I'd take a one kilo Sikhote-Alin any day over a speck of Lunar or Martian material. I realize that these rare items are important to science and they are of minor interest to me in a scientific sense, but the collector in me wants specimens that are striking. So, rather than try to get representative samples of as many different meteorites as possible, I collect specimens that I find visually or historically appealing.
Do you mind saying how many locations your collection represents?
Not counting unclassified North West African stones, my collection represents about eighty falls and finds. However, meteorites that particularly interest me (i.e. Henbury, Sikhote-Alin, Gao, Juancheng, Plainview, Gold Basin, etc.) are represented by multiple specimens. I have to say that I really like these unidentified NWA XXX meteorites and I have a lot of them. Yes there is a lot of unattractive weathered material on the market, but there are also some beautiful complete stones, and whatever your views about the loss of strewn field data, etc. the "NWA boom" has brought a lot of affordable material to collectors and a great deal of new, important research material to the academic sector. I have several perfect crusted, oriented stones that would sell for at least $5 per gram if they were from a known locality, but I picked them up for 40 cents a gram! You just can't beat that. Since I'm not particularly drawn to types and classification, it really doesn't bother me that these NWAs don't have names. I guess it's the artist in me -- the shapes, colors, and textures can be more important than where they came from. Having said that, I also have to admit that I'm very interested in historic pieces, collection numbers, museum labels, and that sort of thing. I'm not denying the importance of provenance by any means, but purely as a collector I can be happy with certain unidentified specimens.
Is your collection displayed or kept in a dry box or both?
I live about half a mile
from the Hudson River, right across from downtown New York City, and it gets
humid here in the summer. If I can't see and handle my collection it's no fun
for me, so I tend to steer away from meteorites that are known to be rusters or
have other problems. I'm lucky -- I like nice stable meteorites like Gibeon and
Odessa. So, my collection is kept in wall-mounted cabinets with glass doors and
overhead lighting. I've had to isolate a few troublemakers (Campo del Cielo,
Brenham, and Nantan), and they're scheduled for treatment with Bill Mason's rust
preventative. I've seen it work wonders on rusty material.
9. What resources have been helpful to you in studying meteorites?
I'm a Macintosh loyalist, so unfortunately I don't have access to the PC-only databases that have been released on CD-ROM. I regularly consult Dr. Monica Grady's beautiful book "Catalogue of Meteorites," and also "Meteorites from A to Z" by Mike and Bill Jensen and Anne Black. In fact, "A to Z" hardly ever leaves my desk. My friend Bill Kroth very generously gave me an entire photocopied set of Buchwald's "Handbook of Iron Meteorites," which is an important reference source. As you well know an original Buchwald set is almost impossible to come by, and appallingly expensive.
Do you ever hunt for meteorites?
Whenever I can! I've been successful at Imilac, Gold Basin, Canyon Diablo, Odessa, and Holbrook. I've also hunted unsuccessfully at Vaca Muerta, failed miserably to locate the Monturaqui crater, and zoomed across many a dry lake bed without finding a damn thing (except bullets and the odd skull). I love the desert, so even if I'm not finding anything I get a great deal of pleasure out of the hunt. It's also a fine opportunity to take photographs. I enjoy reading and writing adventure articles, so historical books about paleontology often accompany me on these jaunts. During the Imilac expedition I had a copy of that famous photo of paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews taken (I think) on one of the Gobi expeditions in the 1930s. We recreated that photo as closely as possible in the middle of the Atacama Desert using a Polaroid. It was great fun, and it remains one of my favorite pictures. I have also collected impact breccias from several sites (see below). More adventures are in the works.
What is your favorite meteorite in your collection?
I've been worrying about how to deal with this question for a while, and I just can't come up with a single answer, so I'll have to give you my top five.
Henbury, 452.8 grams. Fantastic shape and bright orange-red patina.
Gold Basin, 67.2 grams. I found this small individual on my second trip to Gold Basin. Several people including Jim Kriegh and Bob Verish speculated that it May be a distinct fall, and not part of the Gold Basin field, but it's far too lovely to cut up so we'll never know.
Unidentified North West
African crusted stone, 181.9 grams. Fantastic orientation. Who cares if it
doesn't have a name?
Sikhote-Alin, 598 gram. Individual with fabulous regmaglypts
Canyon Diablo with Nininger # 34.4579 2,498 grams
What is your favorite overall if it is not the one above?
No contest at all: Sikhote-Alin
What makes these of
Oh, how could it not be? Sikhote-Alins have everything you could possibly want from a meteorite. They have great character, especially the small ones with all those tiny regmaglypts. It's stable, it's cheap, it's a witnessed fall, and it's a witnessed iron fall -- even better. Plus, I'm an Aquarian and it fell in February (how's that for a scientific answer).
What meteorites are currently on your wish list?
That Henbury from the Smithsonian, of course! Other than that, I'd like to add some historic European witnessed falls like Mocs, Pultusk, and l'Aigle. The trouble is, I like complete stones, so I'm not holding my breath for any of those due to their high dollar value. One important gap in my collection is Portales Valley, and that's the one Jackie wants so I better get to work on that. I've seen several excellent pieces, but not the right one (or perhaps I should say "I haven't seen the right price"). I am always interested in good examples of the meteorites I like most: irons with character and complete stones. Do I really need another Henbury or Sikhote-Alin? Definitely.
What methods have been most successful in building your collection?
(Buying at shows, from dealers by mail, auctions on the web, trading... etc)
I'm a regular at the Tucson show and have become close friends with several dealers and a number of collectors. Tucson is one of my favorite cities in America -- apart from the show -- so I enjoy my annual trip there as a social event, as an opportunity to add to my collection, and also just to be in Arizona where I have several good friends. I rarely buy meteorites by mail as I like to examine a piece in person, but I greatly enjoy trading and have done a lot of it. This will probably irk some people, but I must say that I detest eBay. Not the concept so much as what the directors of eBay have done with their invention. Their ever-expanding list of rules and regulations (no links back to your website from a sale page, etc.) are money-grubbing and unnecessary. I bought some meteorites on eBay in the early days, but no longer.
Do you also collect related materials like impact glasses, breccias, melts, tektites, shocked fossils, native iron rocks etc?
Collecting impactites has, for me, become nearly as interesting as collecting meteorites. Derek Yoost, a prominent New Jersey collector, gave me my first piece of impact breccia. It was from Champagnac in France. At first I thought, "What's this ugly rock for?" Then in 1999 Dr. Roy Gallant -- who is also a regular writer for "Meteorite" -- invited me to join his international expedition to the Popigai crater in northern Siberia. The crater is about 40 million years old, so we weren't going to be finding any meteorites there. I was extremely enthusiastic both at the prospect of traveling with Roy, whom I admire very much, and visiting Russia which was the birthplace of my paternal grandparents. The mission was to collect and examine impact breccias, and that part was not so thrilling for me, but I jumped at the opportunity to go anyway. During that trip I traveled on thirteen airplanes, two helicopters, and three boats. We were airlifted across the Arctic Circle by a big rickety Mi-8 helicopter, and left to our own devices for nine days. We had a shotgun in case of bears and wolves; boats and tents and a potbellied stove; a somewhat dodgy radio; and plenty of potatoes, vodka, and rock hammers.
When I saw chunks of this multi-colored breccia that had been pummeled by some massive and long-vanished meteorite, up there at the edge of the world, I found it beautiful and fascinating. I brought back as much as I could (which was not much due to strict Aeroflot baggage regulations), and since it's virtually impossible acquire this material, it was very attractive to other collectors. As a result, I've traded with enthusiasts and a couple of institutions and increased my collection substantially. I've also twice visited the 370 million-year-old Alamo Breccia site in Nevada, and collected some fine samples from there. The Alamo event was a wet impact in a shallow sea, and some breccia samples contain coral and other fossils, so there I get something for both my meteorite and fossil collections at the same time. Fantastic! I wrote an article about Alamo for the February 2002 issue of "Meteorite," and Matt Morgan of Mile High Meteorites is doing his Master's thesis on it.
Do you prepare any of your own specimens? (cut, polish, etch, etc.)
I'm lucky enough to have three pals -- Geoff Cintron, Allan Lang, and Derek Yoost -- who are all highly skilled at cutting and preparation. I've learned from them and have prepared some of my breccia specimens. But, when it comes to expensive meteorites, I'd rather leave the delicate task of cutting and polishing to the experts.