Book Review: Rocks From Space
(O. Richard Norton)

Reviewed by Stephen J. Bespalko

Lithosphere (September 1994); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

Rocks From Space by O. Richard Norton is a new book, having been published at the beginning of August 1994. It is an amazing work covering a wide range of topics related to meteorites. The book was written by an authority in the field (Norton is a former director of the Grace Flandrau Planetarium at the University of Arizona) and illustrated by an equally acclaimed scientific illustrator who is also the author's wife. The close collaboration made possible by this arrangement is apparent in this excellent book. The pictures and drawings all illuminate important points. The text and graphics are well integrated.

For the amateur collector Rocks From Space could serve as either a textbook or a reference volume. The casual writing style carries the reader along in a way that feels more like a good thriller than a scientific book. The topics are thoroughly covered with few excesses, so the book informs without tiring the reader. The areas where this book truly shines are in the five chapters on recognizing various forms of meteorites, the chapter on tracking falling meteors, and the one on finding meteorites.

For someone interested in field-collecting meteorites, the chapter on finding meteorites contains essential information. To the trained eye, meteorites almost always stand out against native rocks since they are not native. A meteorite will frequently look different for two reasons. First, it is usually not made of the same material as the indigenous rock. Second, most of the other rocks in its vicinity will not have been rounded by tumbling though the atmosphere during a high speed entry.

Understanding what meteorites look like leads directly to strategies for selecting good hunting grounds. There are three types of areas described in the book. Dry lake beds are the best areas to search since there is usually little dirt around the rocks and the terrain is flat. Similarly, in dry desert climates, features called "blowouts" develop where sand and dirt have been "blown out" of an area leaving only the rocks. Finally, farming areas are good places to look shortly after the land is plowed. Farm lands are probably the most obvious areas from which to legally keep what you find since most farms are privately owned. One would also think that just about all of the Mojave Desert would be an ideal area to look for meteorites although ownership of any meteorites found there would probably lie with the federal government.

By way of preparing for a serious search effort, the author recommends viewing as many meteorites as possible. This makes eminent sense, since the differences between meteorites and other rocks is much more subtle than the differences between most collectible minerals and "leaverite." Although meteorites will usually have enough metal to register with a metal detector, they will not generally be of a distinctive color. A relatively nearby location to view a large collection is the Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, at the Center for Meteorite Studies. The Center's collection consists of more than 10 tons of material -- making it one of the largest collections in the world.

Collecting meteorites from public land is prohibited in much the same way that collecting vertebrate fossils is prohibited. The only difference is that meteors can be removed but they must be turned over to the appropriate authorities. Given the phenomenal scarcity of meteorites, it is not surprising that various educational and governmental institutions are eager to take possession of any finds. The author advises on tactics for obtaining a reward and possibly a part of the meteorite after it is turned over to the appropriate authorities. Meteorites found on federal land are the responsibility of the Smithsonian Institution. Based on their reputation, one would expect the Smithsonian would honor agreements made for meteorites. Even so, the author recommends getting any agreements in writing -- before authorities learn of the location of the meteorite.

The quality of Rocks From Space is outstanding. The photographs and drawings were produced with great care resulting in sharp and clear images that are a joy to look at. The paper is a heavy, opaque, coated stock which is ideal for both the text and photographic content of the book. As the publisher points out in the press release, although the book is a 6 x 9 format, it weights in at "damn near 4 pounds." The book is 449 pages long, including 250 photos, and dozens of two color drawings. The appendices contain lists of meteorite verification laboratories, commercial dealers, impact craters, and testing procedures for both iron and nickel meteorites. This book is well worth the money.

Rocks From Space by O. Richard Norton; Mountain Press Publishing Company; ISBN 0-87842-302-8; $20.00.

Copyright © 1994 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the September 1994 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002