I spend many days in the lab cutting and preparing meteorites. Often I start at 7 am and work until mid-afternoon or early evening. I am supposed to be retired but the secret of a long successful retirement is to stay really busy. At least that is what some experts say. If you plop your retired butt in front of the TV you’ll be a goner soon its seems. I love working with meteorites. But after the day of work is over I do relax in front of the TV. For the last month or so I have been watching old Sci-fi movies. It is surprising how many had something to do with meteorites. Many times there is an alien gooey oozy substance that slides out of a hollow meteorite that broke open on impact. But sometimes it waits until a person picks it up. Then it pops open and infects or dissolves the poor ignorant human. Paul Harris and I are “Galaxy Quest” fans and there is a line in the movie where the Guy Fleegman character responds to an ill-conceived scheme. He blurts out “Did you guys ever watch the show?” Paul and I have changed that a bit. When we see in the news crazy things being done by real-world scientists. We say, “Didn’t they ever watch the movies?”
I picked “Riders to the Stars” a few nights ago. The basic plot is that cosmic rays in space are changing the finest steel into something as fragile as plaster. Unless they can find a way to protect the outside of rockets man will never go into space. The scientists decide to go and capture a meteor in flight and find out what has protected the meteoric iron for billions of years in space. Well, the first thing is they should have said they were going to capture a meteoroid. They are solid things instead of a meteor which is just light. It is really hard to catch light at only 18,000 miles per hour. I just bite my lip and go on enjoying the film. What is interesting in this movie is the scene where the pilot candidates are finally told why they were selected. A real meteorite is passed around between them. The meteorite looks to be a classic Canyon Diablo by its spikey appearance. Nice sized one too, wish I had it in my collection. I suppose it could be from another fall, but Canyon Diablo would be a good guess for 1954. I am surprised that it was not a cheap cheesy prop. After two of the pilots die horribly, the remaining pilot, who is the female scientist’s love interest successfully captures a meteoroid and brings it down to Earth. Upon examination, it is found to have a “crystallized pure carbon” coating. It is a cheesy prop, one which has just made the space program unbelievably more costly since all rockets will be covered with diamond.
There is the classic 1958 “The Blob” where terrifying gooiness arrives on Earth by a space rock. The more people the ooze digests the larger the rolling tarlike mass becomes. It can not be killed. But, it can be returned to a state of dormancy by freezing. Frozen, just as it was for countless ages in space. Those darn space rocks! You just never know what will happen once they thaw out. At least this movie gets something right. Most of the world in 1958 would have believed that meteorites start fires when they land. But we learn from “The Blob” that they are cool enough to be picked up by farmers and teenagers soon after landing.
There is almost always a guy running around the film with a Geiger Counter to find out how radioactive the meteorite is. This is a misconception that remains today. Meteorites are still confiscated and taken to a police department or somewhere else until their safety can be ascertained with a Geiger Mueller tube. Nowadays we are actually told to not touch them with our contaminating human hands and to put them quickly into aluminum foil. My goodness, where is the fun in that. But in the “War of the Worlds”, a movie classic by Paramount Pictures from 1953 a Geiger Counter went nuts near what everyone from the Southern California town thought was a huge meteorite. That is until Gene Barry’s scientist character says it is not. The terror the martian machines wreaked was enough to make moviegoers lose their mesons. But some truth was again hiding in the dialogue. Had an asteroid the size of the martian canisters hit Earth it would have made a huge crater. And meteorites and asteroids do not skid along the ground as if under control.
But when it comes to radioactive meteorites no movie quite reaches the heights of absurdity the way “Die Monster Die” does. You take one old English mansion in the woods, a locally hated family, a dead ancestor who practiced the black arts, a dungeon converted into a holding area for a glowing green radioactive meteorite, one very disturbed current family patriarch, his beautiful daughter, and her nosey American scientist boyfriend. You stir all those ingredients together and voila you have “Die Monster Die”. You also have radioactive vegetables the size of beach balls, carnivorous plants, and small animals mutated into the zoo from hell. These ghastly creations were made from exposure to pieces of the meteorite. All that is still needed is a touch of romance and a few horrible deaths. But don’t forget one super strong, yellowish-green, glowing Boris Karloff who can kill with a touch. The movie ends with Boris chasing the last two survivors, the lovey-dovey young couple of course, around the mansion until he finally bursts into flames, taking the mansion with him. Why did Boris not leave the green glowing meteorite alone? And I ask you where was the Geiger Counter when you needed it in this movie? Just for future reference to all meteorite hunters, if it is warm, hums with atomic power, glows green, stimulates plant growth, and yet kills people, YOU LEAVE IT ALONE! You call the proper authorities. Most of all, you do not break off pieces to sell on eBay in the home and gardening section.
I am not sure that “The Invisible Ray” from 1936 directed by Lambert Hillyer is the oldest of the radioactive meteorite movies but it was a favorite when I was young. It teams up actors Boris Karloff as Dr. Janos Rukh a scientist, and Bela Lugosi as Dr. Felix Benet a medical doctor. This movie had everything for me as a kid. There was a giant telescope in a remote observatory and a tremendous asteroid impact in the ancient past. The impact could be witnessed by looking back along the timeline at M31 The Andromedia Galaxy. Pretty nice movie effects too. Of course, there were the still surviving sparking and snapping pieces of Radium X at the African impact crater. Well as always when man messes with radioactive meteorites it goes wonky and people die, always horribly. Add radiation poisoning causing insanity, and serum to hold the poisoning at bay, sort of, toss in intense hatred toward usurpers who have stolen your discovery and you have Dr. Rukh murdering by death ray instead of curing disease. Even after a billion years, a radioactive meteorite is still something better left alone. When will the scientists learn?
I saw this next film as a kid and never forgot it. It is a classic old British SciFi. In “Quatermass 2” the Earth is under attack from space by small bits of living alien material. When fully assembled the creature will form a giant poisonous black slime blob 150 feet high. The only problem, it can not stand the Earth’s atmosphere yet. So it is being grown and adapted in a gigantic pressure dome. The small bits of the creature arrive in meteorites that break open. They can also release a gas that infects humans leaving a V-shaped mark. Of course, they take control of the victims. Daily the meteorites are collected by white-suited humans already infected. Bernard Quatermass while working on a moon colonization program for the British government is disturbed by the regular arrival of “meteorites” at a singular area of the English countryside. Upon investigation, he recovers a broken-open “meteorite” and takes it back to his lab. Engineers and scientists there produce a model of how the object appeared before ablating in the atmosphere. The small missiles as they actually are, arrive under control from an unseen alien base in space. I was so . . .OK I’ll say it. . . frightened by this movie as a very young boy that I have remembered it all my life. I bought the DVD a few years ago and I watch the film occasionally. While working on some ceramics projects about two years ago I thought “how cool would it be to make one of those blown-open, twisted, and burned missiles from the movie.” So I did, I sculpted it and I fired the thing. I glazed it with a gunmetal-colored glaze. It felt like I had come full circle on that old 1957 movie. Here is a still picture from the movie showing the reconstructed missile and here is my version of a broken-open one as they were found in the English field.
Just a few years later meteorites got a bad rap again in another British film. 1967 brings us “They Came From Beyond Space.” You know as a space scientist when a V-shaped formation of meteors is seen in the air and meteorites land in the same formation on a farmer’s field that something is not right. The meteorites have big glowy crystals. But you’re not going to be calling them pallasites and taking them to the laboratory for study. Because soon as you get near these space rocks incorporeal alien beings jump into your brain taking over your body. Seems like every alien species that is having a little trouble with crumbling solar systems or degenerating bodies comes to Earth looking to either take over or force us to help them. And meteorites seem to be the alien’s arrival method of choice more often than not.
This trend was not limited to just the movies. Oh No, made it to TV too. The original Outer Limits had an episode that I particularly liked called the “Inheritors”. It was redone in the Outer Limits reboot but I liked the 1960’s original much better. An alien race of extraordinary goodness is having problems with reproduction. So they sent out into the galaxy thousands of asteroids made of a lead/iron alloy with a porous honeycomb metal structure. You know what’s coming, even if you never saw the program. There ain’t honey in the cells of that metal. Oh no, it’s genetic material. It carries the plans of how to get to the planet of the unfortunate sterile aliens. It is a heartwarming story with no real villains. The soldiers shot in the head by the lead bullets made from the asteroid become super-geniuses. They build a spacecraft and carry off a group of disabled and sick children, the hopeless and helpless of our world. The children have been cured by the air in the spaceship which is the same as on the planet they travel to. They will inherit a bright new world. So it just goes to show not everything that wiggles, crawls, or oozes from a meteorite are necessarily bad. Maybe we need to remain open-minded and not rush to destroy every alien visitor. But then again, I have to say my knee-jerk reaction to a meteorite found with life would be to grab a flamethrower and yell at the softhearted human scientists, “Haven’t you guys watched the movies!!”
Meteorites are not just confined to science fiction films anymore. This fascination for meteorites and asteroids arriving and granting superpowers or causing total destruction has made it into comedies, romances, and dramas. Seems like every few months a movie comes out where another asteroid is going to end all life by pulverizing the Earth. The characters once again have the choice to go crazy, loot, and burn or make a love connection at the very end of time. Just go and find out why your X girlfriend is now zooming around in a disguise saving the city. There will be a meteorite at the end of your search. I don’t like any of the new movies that disparage the good name of asteroids and meteorites. But I do like many of the old films.
I will be in the lab again tomorrow. I will be cutting open some meteorites. I sure hope that I will not find myself trying unsuccessfully to remove some alien ooze or glop off my hand. Because I will have no excuse for the dire consequences that result, I knew better. I Watched The Movies!!!
I have been writing for Meteorite Times since its beginning. This is the first time that I have strayed from good science and presented a tongue-in-cheek playful article. I often write short Science Fiction and Fantasy stories where I get to let loose. So as a new year begins and we have to admit the last couple of years have not always been full of fun. I hope you will forgive me for taking this opportunity to play a bit.