MEET THE CREW: ACTION SCIENTIST GEOFF NOTKIN
The star of Discovery Channel’s Meteorite Men, he’s a Ted-talking authority on space rocks, and as resident meteorite export at the Space Lounge at Space Rocks London on Sunday April 22nd, we’re pretty pleased to report that he’s a rocker to boot.
How would you describe the day job?
I have been working with space rocks for 25 years, first as a meteorite hunter and collector, then science writer, then TV presenter, and now as CEO of Aerolite Meteorites, Inc. We are an international company with offices in the UK and the US. We find meteorites, identify them, provide specimens to collectors and researchers. We work closely with academia and prominent museums and institutions worldwide, to further the understanding and availability of these amazing visitors from outer space.
I am best known for the TV series, Meteorite Men (Discover Science/Quest TV. My film credits include the documentaries, Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, and the upcoming, “First to the Moon: The Story of Apollo 8.
In my spare time, I’m an author. I have three books in print and two more on the way. I am also a Governor of the National Space Society (NSS) which is the world’s largest and oldest grassroots spaceflight advocacy group.
When did you first fall in love with space and more specifically, space rocks?
My father was an amateur astronomer and I blame him for my fascination with all things space. He loved setting up his little refracting telescope in our garden and when I was an infant I’d gaze through that telescope in wonder at tiny lights in the sky which were, in fact, the moons of Jupiter. I first encountered meteorites at London’s stately old Geological Museum (now part of the NHM London). As a wide-eyed little boy, I stared in absolute wonder at those massive, dark, ominous visitors from space and promised myself that — one day — I would have one of my own. Little did I imagine that meteorites would become one of the driving forces in my adult life!
What can meteorites tell us about the universe?
Chondrites — meteorites that contain ancient pre-solar grains known as chondrules — help us understand the age of our solar system and how it formed. Some rare meteorite types — carbonaceous chondrites — contain microdiamonds that are leftovers from a long-gone star that predated our own solar system. Other meteorites contain water, salt, carbon, and even amino acids. They tell us that many asteroids were once active, with molten cores, and their own geologic processes, and some meteorites could even have brought the ingredients for organic life to our planet.
What are the most common misconceptions about meteorites?
In sci-fi movies, we often see molten, burning meteorites crashing into our Earth. That’s not how it happens except — possibly — for the very largest extinction event-causing objects. Atmospheric breaking causes incoming potential meteorites (meteoroids) to slow dramatically. A typical impact speed may only be about 200mph. Many people also confuse meteors with meteorites. A meteor is nothing more than a shooting star that we see in the sky. Any solid, cosmic debris that makes it to the surface becomes a meteorite.
Speaking of objects falling from the sky, should we be worried about NEOs?
Most definitely, though I wouldn’t run out and cash in your life insurance policy just yet. Most meteorites were once part of asteroids. NEOs, or near-Earth objects are asteroids or asteroid fragments that pass relatively close to our planet. Anything that comes nearer than the distance from the Earth to the Moon is, in terms of space, regarded as scary close.
Do you remember the first time you stumbled on a meteorite, and what’s been your most remarkable, noteworthy find?
Meteorite hunting is challenging and complex work, but it’s also endlessly enthralling and an always-different adventure. I uncovered my first meteorite in 1994 in Arizona and have found thousands more since then — large and small — on four continents. Perhaps the most remarkable find was made during our second season of Meteorite Men. It was a 223-lb complete Admire meteorite that fell thousands of years ago in Kansas. It is classified as a pallasite, meaning it is comprised of approximately 50% nickel-iron and 50% olivine, which is the gemstone peridot. The crystals contained within this massive meteorite were officially classified as a new and unique gemstone — palladot — and exhibit features never before seen in meteorites. That was a new and unexpected discovery for science.
Are you a fan of sci fi and/or music? If so, who are your favourites?
Let’s be frank here: I am a sci-fi fanatic. I grew up on Doctor Who, Star Trek, Lost In Space, Thunderbirds and The Prisoner, and they are all still favorites of mine. Perhaps “obsessions” would be more accurate.
My oldest friend is Neil Gaiman. We met when we were 10 and grew up together. We were both mad for comics, sci-fi, and sword and sorcery. We read every damn thing we could get our hands on and sometimes went over the fence at our prison-like school to London and visit what was, at the time, the only science fiction and fantasy shop in town — Dark They Were And Golden Eyed.
When we were 15, Neil Gaiman and I started a band and we played in the original punk scene in London from 1976 on. Neil took me to my very first concert, which was Lou Reed on his Rock ’n’ Roll Heart tour. Can you imagine starting your rock music career by seeing Lou sing “Sweet Jane” from the eighth row, with Steve Hunter on guitar and Prakash John on bass? I was done for after that. It was all rock ’n’ roll, all the time. I played professionally for decades as a drummer and bass player and am a veteran of the London, Boston, and New York punk scenes. I worked for many years with singer/songwriter Lach — founder of the Antifolk movement who now lives in Edinburgh — and Billy Ficca, the drummer from Television. I played CBGB’s more times than I can count, along with any other rock club in NYC you can think of.
Geoff Notkin and Aerolite Meteorites will be in the Space Lounge at Space Rocks London on April 22nd alongside the London Stereoscopic Company, All About Space Magazine, the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and a very special little robotic Mars rover named Yuri 3. The Space Lounge is open to all ticket holders, and tickets for sessions two and three are still available here.