Where Did the Meteor Over Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa Land? The Meteor Farmer Revisited

by kris bishop on April 15, 2010

Meteor farmerA large meteor reportedly traveled over the upper Midwestern United States on Wednesday night, prompting searches for a landing site. For tips, we turn to Ben Paynter, guest blogger and contributer to Best of Technology Writing 2008:

“How valuable is buried treasure? Apparently that all depends on the aftermarket. I learned this firsthand by paling around with Steve Arnold, perhaps the most famous meteorite hunter in the world. Arnold used a makeshift metal detector—basically an ATV hitched to a clumsy sled of magnetic coil strapped to PVC pipe—to discover the largest pallasite meteorite ever in the US: a 1,430-pound, keg-sized space rock estimated to be worth more than 1 million dollars. It happened in, of all places, Southwestern Kansas. “The Meteor Farmer” explores how Arnold combined an arsenal of homespun gadgetry with a seemingly, well, spacey approach to cartography to make that possible. How he learned to leverage his fame into a brand name to hawk meteorites as objets d’art to rich collectors, for tens of thousands of dollars. How his opportunism has sparked a harsh bidding war between tony interior decorators and underfunded scientists used to relying on gratis donations for study.

Without spoiling the surprise, his innovations have revolutionized how some hot rocks are recovered. After the story ran, however, Arnold’s success began eroding the scarcity that drove the market: Last year that supposedly mogul-making 1,430-pounder failed to meet even a $275,000 reserve at an auction at Bonhams. That capped a streak of hard luck for the hunter, who also lost his main clubhouse, a second home in Greensburg, Kansas, when an F5-tornado flattened the town entirely. With Greensburg all but tapped out of rocks, I thought Arnold might be taking some time off. Turns out, he’s been secretly hoarding inventory—and aligning the proper publicity chess pieces– for what is likely to be an equally controversial second act. (Greensburg has rallied, too; their effort to rebuild as the “greenest city in America” is being chronicled on Discovery’s Planet Green network.)

  This time, little is expected to make it to museums or upscale foyers. Instead, each space rock will be cracked open and cored for its most valuable asset: traces of a precious gemstone called peridot. Earth-bound variations of this August birthstone, forged in volcanic eruptions rather than cosmic collisions, go for less than a hundred bucks per carat. Arnold has been working with the Gemological Institute of America to certify his super-rare specimens as the first-ever “extraterrestrial” baubles, a designation that might bring a hundred times more if he makes it to traditional jewelry stores. His main hurdle is familiar: “Nobody wants them yet because they don’t know they exist,” he says. The master of unconventional branding hopes to launch his prime-time pitch this fall, having recently wrapped a pilot about the new venture for Discovery’s Science Channel.

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Paynter’s article entitled “The Meteor Farmer” was included in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson.

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The Best of Technology Writing is part of The Digital Culture Series,
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Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library.  All books are
available for free online and for sale in print.

To read more about past Best of Technology Writing collections, select one of the below titles:

The Best of Technology Writing 2008

The Best of Technology Writing 2007

The Best of Technology Writing 2006

 

 

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