An September 1768 Witnessed Fall: Lucé, France

An September 1768 Witnessed Fall: Lucé, France

The Conservation of Mass:

Always here. But where?


The law of conservation of mass states that the mass of a closed system will remain constant over time, regardless of the processes acting inside the system.

Lucé meteorite

 
Every meteorite came after. None came before.

Lucé, France is truly a treasure to behold. As the first meteorite to be analyzed chemically, regardless of the conclusions, its place in meteorite history was forever cemented.

Occasionally, a specimen is offered for sale or trade that stops me in my tracks. Not because of its size, its class or even its value, but instead because its name was synonymous with the history of meteorites. Oh, and also that the specific locality is almost never, ever offered publicly. Such is the case of Lucé.

Like many wonderful meteorite deals I’ve had the pleasure to savor, a recent purchasing frenzy opened a channel of communication that led to a heads-up when new material was advertised. When an alert arrive in my inbox, I copied names and prices into a reply email in a panic, imagining that thousands if not millions of other collectors on the planet were doing the same thing at the same time. The race was on even if only in my mind. With a rapid click of the send button, I began the painful wait.

Checking my email every few seconds, I finally received a calm reply with the information about how to pay for the selected specimens. As if the imaginary race was still on, I shot the money across thousands of miles using the fabulous financial tools of the 2.0 version of the web.

Then, like a child waiting for the cereal box toy order through the mail, I rushed to the mailbox everyday only to be disappointed everyday for the next 10 days. Then the box arrived.

There in my own hand sat a thin, crusted slice of the beginning of formal meteorite science. On Tuesday the 13th of September in the year 1768, a single stone of 3500 grams fell from the sky and was christened Lucé. And it is this stone called Lucé that I now held in my hand.

Lucé meteorite

 

The famous crust of Lucé was interpreted as where a lightening strike removed the soil of an earthbound rock and melted the exterior of the stone leaving the interior unharmed.

 

Let’s start at the beginning.

Although hints of the theory of conservation of mass has roots as deep as several hundred years before the common era, and interpreted again in the 13th century, it wasn’t until 1789 when Antoine Lavoisier put into words what we now believe about the conservation of mass.

Lavoisier was a powerhouse in science s well as many other disciplines. Unfortunately for Lavoisier, his paths of law and science somehow led him to the job of a tax collector. And although Lavoisier tried to reform the French tax system in order to help the lower classes, his actions were used against him as things in France heated up near the end of the 1700s. On the 8th of May in 1794, Lavoisier visited Paris for the last time since his head was swiftly and deliberately removed from his body as punishment for being a traitor and apparently for selling watered-down tobacco, serious crime as well.

Some speculate that it was not necessary Lavoisier’s political activities and tobacco hydrating that led to his execution, but instead that he cross the path of one Jean-Paul Marat, a man described as “short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face.”

Marat, it is written, spent much time in a bathtub and once, in fear for his life, hid in the Paris sewers. As if that were not bad enough, he was stabbed to death while in his bathtub on July 13, 1793, almost a year before Lavoisier was beheaded.

Those who speculate about such things believe that Marat presented something to Lavoisier, to which Lavoisier then rejected Marat and his “preposterous “scientific invention.”” Later, when Marat moved up the ladder of players in the French Revolution, its seems that the grudge Marat held against Lavoisier blurred the line between personal hatred and law breaking. Regardless, the path to Lavoisier’s execution was cemented.

Lucé meteorite

 

The very first chemical analysis of a meteorite yielded 36% iron among other things. The conclusion was that Lucé was a pyrite-rich sandstone.

 

Right answer. Wrong question.

But why, you ask, in this meteorite column am I retracing the steps of notable characters of the French Revolution? Well, it is because Antoine Lavoisier was also among the group of three scientist who were the first to do a formal chemical analysis of a meteorite. And that meteorite just happened to be Lucé.

As the story goes, Lucé fell through a clear afternoon sky arriving with thunderclaps, a loud hissing noise, and no doubt a pretty good thump as it embedded half of itself into the rich soil of France. As yet another stone in history reported to be to hot to pick up, Lucé, presumably after it cooled, was sectioned and a piece was acquired by the Abbé Charles Bacheley who sent it on to the Royal Academy of Science in Paris. Three chemists, one being Lavoisier, were appointed to study the stone. The chemists wrote that the stone “had a thin black crust partially covering an interior of gray cindery material scattered with an infinite number of shiny metallic grains of pale yellowish color.” Their bulk analysis found three main ingredients in the stone; 55.5% vitrifiable earth, 36% iron, and 8.5% sulfur.

All this brainpower and chemical talent interpreted the findings as the stone of Lucé that fell from the sky was not, in fact, a thunderstone; had not, in fact, fallen from the sky; and was, in fact, a fragment of pyrite-rich sandstone that had been struck by lightening. In particular, the lightening removed a thin covering of dirt and melted the surfaced of the stone while not affecting the interior of the rock. Although wrong on pretty much all accounts, the three scientists were the first to come to the conclusion of how the exterior and interior of a meteorite can be of the same material, but wildly different in texture.

Another meteorite was studied with a noted resemblance to Lucé, as was a third thunderstone. Unfortunately, the tax collecting obligations called away Lavoisier and he missed out on this third analysis. As would be expected, the third stone from the sky was quite similar to the previous two. Sadly, of the trio of stones establishing the historical intersection of meteorites and chemistry, Lucé is the only survivor with the scientist all dead, and the other two comparable thunderstones lost to the world.

Lucé meteorite

 

The texture of Lucé includes the classics of an L6; white silicate matrix, chondrules, metal staining, and of course, more white silicate matrix.

I was in our local Barnes and Noble bookstore the other day when I noticed the new book The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars by Christopher Cokinos. The description described a book I’d always wished someone would write.

Then I looked in the index and saw my name. A quick flip to page 275 and I read an entire paragraph of my personal thoughts on the allure of meteorites. Included was the line: “Horejsi calls chondrules, “the most basic humanly visible building blocks of the solar system.” A wonderful thought.”

I agree. And so, it seems, does Lucé.

The Conservation of mass of Lucé

An inventory of Lucé around the world led the to the following list complied and submitted to the Meteorite List by Pelé Pierre-Marie.

As of November 30, 2004, the distribution of Lucé is as follows:

84g: Natural History Museum, Vienne
24g: National Museum, Budapest
23g: Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
6.1g: Geological Survey of India, Calcutta
5g: Natural History Museum, London
4g: Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago
3g: University of Tübingen
3g: Max Planck Institute, Hamburg
0.58g: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris
0.3g: Riksmuseum, Stockholm
0.2g: American Museum of Natural History, New York

The total mass here is 153.18 grams or a little over four percent of the original mass. When I add my specimen to the list, the new total is a still little over four percent.

 

Lucé meteorite

 

Pyrite-rich sandstone that had been struck by lightening?

I spent some time in the sandstone deserts of Utah this summer, as I often do, but this time I pondered the sandstone as a meteorite. While some stone meteorites do have a sandstone appearance, and Chassigny comes to mind, I just cannot see how one would mistake an L6 chondrite that crashed out of the sky for sandstone.

But then again, America did not stretch its muscles as a country until eight years after Lucé fell, and it would still be another 120 years before Utah even become a state let alone establish a tourist bureau to help make travel for a French scientist a pleasurable experience.

Lucé as UFO evidence?

As I sorted through the chain of events in France during Lavoisier’s time, I wondered if yet another example of Einstein’s quote materialized, namely “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

In a nutshell, Lavoisier was simply too book-smart for his place in time.

And then to see that in 2009, the fall of the Lucé meteorite was actually used as evidence that conventional science is missing the boat on the existence of UFOs. I wonder if maybe scientists might just want to keep a few extra cans of food in the closest sewer just in case.

Until next time….


The Accretion Desk welcomes all comments and feedback. accretiondesk@gmail.com


About the Author

Martin Horejsi
Dr. Martin Horejsi is a Professor of Instructional Technology and Science Education at The University of Montana. A long-time meteorite collector and writer, before publishing his column The Accretion Desk in The Meteorite Times, he contributed often and wrote the column From The Strewnfields in Meteorite Magazine. Horejsi is currently a monthly columnist in The Science Teacher, a journal by the National Science Teachers Association. Horejsi specializes in the collection and study of historic witnessed fall meteorites with the older, smaller, and rarer the better. Although his meteorite collection once numbered over a thousand pieces with near that many different locations, several large trades and sales have streamlined the collection to about 250 locations with all but 10 being important witnessed falls. Many of the significant specimens in Horejsi's collection are historic witnessed falls that once occupied prominence in the meteorite collections of Robert A. Haag, James Schwade, and Michael Farmer. Other important specimens were acquired through institutional trades including those from The Smithsonian Institution, Arizona State University, and other universities.
Top