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John Suppe

Reports of Stones Falling from the Sky

When Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley from Yale reported stones falling from the sky over Weston, Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson, child of the Enlightenment that he was, is reported to have said, "It is easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven." It is therefore ironic that nearly 200 years later, convincing evidence has been amassed in Chesapeake Invader by C. Wylie Poag, a paleontologist from the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that a vastly larger meteor impacted south of the Mason-Dixon line, creating a 100-kilometer-wide crater that lies deeply buried under Chesapeake Bay and the shores of Jefferson's Virginia.

Jefferson's Humean skepticism about meteorites was not directed just at New England and it was not expressed out of scientific ignorance. He had published several geologic contributions, and he was aware of some details of the then-current scientific controversy over stones falling from the sky. For many skeptics the first convincing investigation had come a few years earlier, in 1803, when Jean-Baptiste Biot, a brilliant young professor of the College de France and friend of Laplace, was dispatched by the French Academy of Sciences to investigate a fall of stones near the town of L'Aigle in Normandy. He collected detailed testimony from the surrounding villages that confirmed the time and place of the fall, that about 3000 stones fell in a 4-by-10-kilometer area, and that the stones were found lying on top of the ground and were of a type unlike rocks native to the area.

Biot's evidence was overwhelmingly convincing—but not to Jefferson, who wrote to a friend saying that the report was a result of "the exuberant imagination of a Frenchman … run away with his judgment. The evidence of nature, derived from experience, must be put into one scale, and in the other the testimony of man, his ignorance, the deception of his senses, his lying disposition."

Nevertheless, evidence ...

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