Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/88

This page has been validated.



since it is found coating surfaces of fragments that have been severed by the explosions in the air.

Aërolites frequently fall simultaneously in large numbers, many thousands of them being in such cases spread over a surface of the country some miles in extent; and such showers of stones seem to have entered the atmosphere as a group, though their numbers must subsequently have been greatly increased by the division accompanying their detonation.

The explanation of the incrustation and of the cloud left by the meteorite, or out of which it seems to emerge, is found in the transformation into heat of the energy actuating a body that enters our atmosphere with a motion of 12 to 40 miles a second. The velocity of the body is almost instantaneously arrested by the atmospheric resistance, and in a very few seconds the mass becomes, comparatively speaking, stationary. Its surface must, as a consequence, be immediately fused, and the melted matter would be flung off from it into the surrounding air, fresh surfaces continually affording new fused material to form the cloud of, so to say, siliceous spray that lingers along and around the path of the meteorite.

When the mass is small—and in the case of meteoric showers and ordinary falling stars it cannot exceed a few ounces, and may often be but a few grains—the whole material is thus consumed, and must ultimately fall as an unperceived, because widely-scattered, dust. The meteorite is the residue that survives this wasting action where the magnitude of the mass is more considerable. The cause of the violent and often successive explosions is probably to be sought in the expansion of the outer portions of the mass, while the interior retains the contracted volume due to the intense cold of space with which the meteorite enters the atmosphere.

From time to time these contending conditions of volume may, as in a Prince Rupert's drop, produce explosion, the heated shell in the case of the meteorite flying off in fragments from the internally cold inner core, which if sufficient velocity remain to the mass will undergo a recurrence of the same conditions of surface fusion and explosion. The loudness of the detonation is also probably enhanced by the simultaneous collapse of the air on the vacuum that would follow the rapidly-moving mass.

The pitted surface characteristic of meteorites probably bears witness to a similar effect of unequal dilatation operating more especially in the freshly-broken surfaces of the mass, small fragments splintering off in this way from the cold and brittle stone under the sudden influence of intense heat.

A remark made by Humboldt, that light and meteorites are the only sources of our knowledge regarding the universe external to our world, points to the true ground for our interest in the waifs and strays of extra-telluric matter that thus fall upon our globe.