UCLA Meteorite Museum
In August 2017, I scheduled a visit to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Meteorite Gallery (Museum) and a meeting with my friend, Dr. Alan Rubin, Curator of the UCLA Meteorite Museum. It had been decades since I stepped foot on the campus of UCLA. I remember it being a large beautiful campus when I was a freshman, but it had grown much larger. While I attended UCLA, Bruin walk was a dirt path, but now it was a nice concrete walkway. A lot had changed in over three decades. Too bad, I was not collecting meteorites back then. An interesting fact about UCLA is that according to the October 2021 U.S. News & World Report, UCLA has the highest number of people applying to the school at 108,877. As a comparison, Harvard has over 40,000 applicants, and no Ivy League school made the top ten list of applicants.
The UCLA Meteorite Gallery (Museum) is located on the UCLA campus at 595 Charles E. Young Drive East in the Geology building, room 3697. It opened in January 2014. The Meteorite Gallery is open to the public and admission is free. The UCLA meteorite collection started in 1934 when William Andrews Clark donated a 357 pound (162 kg) Canyon Diablo meteorite, now known informally as the Clark iron. The collection has blossomed from the original 192 specimens that were purchased in the early 1960s from the family of Professor Frederick Leonard, who founded the UCLA Department of Astronomy. The UCLA Collection of Meteorites is the largest collection on the West Coast and contains over 3,000 specimens from 1,700 different meteorites. It is the second largest meteorite collection housed at a university in the United States, and the fifth largest collection of meteorites in the United States. The UCLA Meteorite Gallery has about 100 meteorites on display. Visitors may touch some of the big iron meteorites [Gibeon and, Camp Wood (on loan from the Utas family) as well as several large specimens of Canyon Diablo] in the Gallery, each weighing hundreds of pounds.
The meteorites are neatly displayed in cases. Chondrites can be found in cases 1 and 2. Some notable meteorites in these cases are La Criolla, Murchison and Allende. Case 3 houses various pallasites. Case 4 has samples of meteorites that have been partially melted or broken apart and put back together by impacts. A striking example of this is Portales Valley. Case 5 has tektites and Libyan Desert Glass. Case 6 has a selection of California meteorites. At the bottom of case 6 are “Meteorwrongs.” Case 7 has examples of melted meteorites from near surface regions. The common meteorite basalts are called eucrites. In addition, case 7 contains meteorites from the Moon and Mars.
The late John Wasson, Director of the UCLA Collection of Meteorites, explained, “The collection is important for UCLA because researchers can get samples very quickly and look at significant pieces they can hold in their hands…” It’s very different than writing to a museum and asking for a small sample. With a hand specimen, you can see the shadings and textures that can tell you something about the differences in the detailed process of formation.” The UCLA Collection of Meteorites provides material for research at UCLA and other universities around the world A major goal is to provide proper housing for the collection which is currently housed in ten large steel cabinets in a research lab.
Dr. Frederick Charles Leonard (1896 – 1960)
Dr. Leonard, an astrophysicist, will be forever linked with UCLA. In 1921, He earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. Leonard started in the Mathematics department at UCLA. Leonard’s interest in meteorites was shared by few, if any, at UCLA at the time. He founded the Astronomy department in 1932, but was alone in studying meteoritics. He was misunderstood and unappreciated by his colleagues throughout his career. Dr. Leonard taught three rising star students – the late O. Richard Norton (Director of the Fleishman Planetarium at University Nevada, Reno and University of Arizona, Flandrau Planetarium and Science Center, and author of the must read “Rocks from Space” – one of my all-time favorite books), the late Ronald N. Hartman (Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Planetarium at Mt. San Antonio College. He was kind and shared some of his meteorite knowledge with me.), and Ronald A. Oriti (worked for the Griffith Observatory, author of Introduction to Astronomy and wrote for Astronomy magazine). In the fall of 1937, Dr. Leonard taught a class on meteoritics, only the second time a class dedicated to meteorites was offered at any American university. We can thank him for many of the words currently in use in science today; meteoriticist and meteoritics being two of many.
After teaching at UCLA for about a dozen years, Frederick Leonard helped found The Society for Research on Meteorites the first name of The Meteoritical Society (name changed in 1946), and he became its first president in 1933. Harvey H. Nininger was the Society’s first Secretary-Treasurer. Nininger nominated Leonard to be its first president, and Leonard nominated Nininger to be its first Secretary. Leonard also nominated Dr. Oliver C. Farrington as an honorary first president. Dr. Farrington was an assistant at the Smithsonian museum and Curator at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; he wrote books on meteorites which Leonard used in his first class on meteorites. Later, Nininger would become president of The Society. Leonard would be the editor of the Society’s journal for the next 25 years. The Society’s Leonard medal is given to outstanding meteorite researchers. Leonard was meticulous and insisted that “Research” must be included in the title to distinguish the new Society from a hobby club. During deliberations, Leonard wanted to hold the organizational meeting at UCLA, and Nininger wanted it held in Denver. Later they received an invitation to hold the meeting at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. They decided on Chicago since it was hosting the World’s Fair at the same time.
Nininger and Leonard were friends, and Nininger visited Leonard at UCLA in August 1932. However, there was drama between Nininger, Dr. Lincoln LaPaz [in 1944, he founded the Institute of Meteoritics (IOM) at University of New Mexico] and Frederick Leonard. In 1946, Nininger and LaPaz clashed at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Meteorites, when Nininger presented a paper discussing the scientific importance of meteorites. Nininger believed that LaPaz urged Frederick Leonard to criticize Nininger’s use of the term “meteorite,” and LaPaz went on to accuse Nininger of mounting “falsely labeled specimen[s] of worthless shale” rather than meteorites on the covers of Nininger’s “A Comet Strikes the Earth.” This led to the resignation of Nininger and his wife from The Meteoritical Society in 1949. In 1963, Nininger was persuaded to rejoin The Society.
To Leonard, his massive meteorite collection was sacred. His rigid rule of “look but don’t touch the meteorites” was enforced in his classes, and his students never touched a meteorite in class. At the time of his death, his meteorite collection was one of the largest in the world, containing samples of about one-eighth of all known meteorites. In the early 1960’s, UCLA purchased Leonard’s impressive meteorite collection from his family.
Dr. John Wasson (1934 – 2020)
Dr. John Wasson was a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences and Curator of the UCLA Meteorite Collection. He earned his PhD from M.I.T., choosing it over Harvard. Wasson joined the UCLA faculty in 1964. Wasson was the co-creator of the UCLA Meteorite Collection. Wasson was known for many things including his research involving the use of neutron activation and petrographic techniques to study chondrites and iron meteorites. He wrote two books: Meteorites: Their Record of Early Solar-System History, and Meteorites; he also published more than 300 articles on meteorites. The mineral “wassonite,” a form titanium sulfide (co-discovered by Alan Rubin) was named in his honor.
In 1966 during elections of officers of the venerable Meteoritical Society, Wasson helped lead an insurrection to remove amateur enthusiasts and replace them with professionals. He became president of the Society and was bestowed its highest honor – the Leonard Medal — in 2002. The next year, he received the J. Lawrence Smith Medal from the U. S. National Academy of Sciences.
In later years, Wasson became interested in tektites and hunted for them in Thailand and Laos. He found they could be dispersed across a massive area and argued that it could be caused by meteoroid air-bursts, instead of the classical theory of cratering events.
In August 2017, I was fortunate to meet Wasson when I visited the UCLA Meteorite Museum. Although Wasson was in his 80’s and retired, he still biked to UCLA and worked on meteorites. I remember he and Alan Rubin were friendly and passionate about meteorites.
Dr. Alan Rubin
Dr. Alan Rubin earned his Ph.D. in Geology from the University of New Mexico. He has been with UCLA since 1983. Rubin is a research Geochemist with the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences. He is presently the curator of the UCLA Meteorite Collection. He is a fellow at the Meteoritical Society and winner of the Nininger Meteorite Award and seven Griffith Observer Science awards. He has conducted meteorite research on a wide variety of samples, concentrating on the nature and origin of chondrules, shock effects in chondrites and the processes that heated and altered meteorite parent bodies. Rubin has written two books on meteorites and space science including: Disturbing the Solar System (Impacts, close encounters, and coming attractions), and (with Chi Ma of Caltech) Meteorite Mineralogy. The garnet mineral – rubinite is named after him and so is the asteroid 6227 Alanrubin.
In August 2017, Alan was gracious and showed me around the UCLA Meteorite Museum. He also introduced me to John Wasson. I enjoyed spending time with both of them. They were both friendly and enthusiastic about meteorites.
If you are in the Los Angeles area, you should visit the UCLA Meteorite Museum. Dr. Rubin, Dr. Wasson, and Dr. Leonard left their indelible marks on UCLA, and the meteorite community.
I would like to thank my friend, Dr. Alan Rubin, for his assistance on this article.
Zoom call with Dr. Alan Rubin
Introduction to the Collection – The UCLA Meteorite Collection
Wikipedia: UCLA Meteorite collection
The Meteoritical Society: Personal Recollections of Frederick C. Leonard by O. Richard Norton. November 28, 2017
U.S. News & World Report: 10 Colleges That Received the Most Applications by Josh Moody. October 19, 2021.
The Meteoritical Society: “History” abstract of an article by Dr. Ursula Marvin published in 1993 in Meteoritics, volume 28, pages 261 to 314.
Wikipedia – O.C. Farrington
UCLA Newsroom: In memoriam: John Wasson, 86, cosmochemist and co-creator of the UCLA Meteorite Collection. John Harlow – September 15, 2020.
Lunar and Planetary Institute. John T. Wasson, 1934 – 2020. Text courtesy of The Meteoritical Society
https://meteorites.ucla.edu Alan Rubin – The UCLA Meteorite Collection
Daily Bruin. New mineral unearthed and named after UCLA professor by Stephen Stewart – May 3, 2011.