This Could Be the First Record of Someone Getting Killed by a Meteorite

A drawing of a meteorite falling in Ukraine in 1866.

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum

A team of scientists think they’ve found the oldest evidence of a meteorite striking and killing a person, according to a new report published in the journal journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science.

Given the hype around space rocks hitting Earth, there are surprisingly few records of meteorites striking people, much less killing anyone. But scientists at the Ego University and Trakya University in Turkey and the SETI Institute in the United States found a 1888 record from General Directorate of State Archives of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey that contains three manuscripts that seem to recount a death-by-meteorite event.

The first manuscript, written on September 13, 1888, details a fireball occurring the month before in the evening, over a village whose exact location the scientists couldn’t determine. Smoke and fire accompanied the flash, and meteorites rained from the sky for 10 minutes. One man died and another was injured and paralyzed as a result of the event. A second manuscript contained a request forwarded to Sultan Abdul Hamid II asking what should be done about the event. A third also recounts the events and mentions that a man named Ahmed Munir Pasha sent a letter with “a stone piece” to the Grand Vizier.

Basically, on August 22, 1888, a meteor exploded over a village in Turkey, killing one man and paralyzing another. On September 13, a local legislator reported the event; the central government heard about it on October 8; and the sultan heard about it on October 9, according to the translations in the new paper, titled “Earliest evidence of a death and injury by a meteorite.”

Translating these documents came with its challenges—Ottoman Turkish is difficult to read, the scientists explained. The researchers noted that there are still a lot more records awaiting digitization, and they don’t have any physical evidence of the 1888 impact. Regardless, this would be the earliest known record definitively stating that a meteorite killed someone.

Meteorite deaths are exceedingly rare. Most recently, a bus driver in India named V. Kamaraj died in an apparent meteorite strike in Natrampalli back in 2016, though scientific experts, including at NASA, refuted the claim. The National Resource Council estimates that 91 people should die in meteorite-related accidents every year, but there aren’t records of these deaths. Injury-by-meteorite is perhaps more common—over 1,600 people were injured when a meteor fell over Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013, and famously, Ann Hewlett Hodges was hit and slightly hurt by a meteorite in Alabama in 1954.

Earth is big enough that the odds of dying from a meteorite impact are exceedingly slim.

Scientists Produce Rigorous Study of Why Grapes Spark in the Microwave

by Ryan F. Mandelbaum

A paper published Monday in a well-known science journal begins with the following sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a pair of grape hemispheres exposed to intense microwave radiation will spark, igniting a plasma.” A universally acknowledged truth indeed… but what causes this microwave marvel?

If you’re not familiar, putting grapes into a microwave to make sparks has become a popular YouTube trick. This new research from Canadian scientists shows that worthwhile advances can come from anywhere, even by studying something sort of silly.

“This is a regime that hasn’t been significantly studied before,” one of the paper’s authors, Pablo Bianucci from Concordia University in Montreal, told Gizmodo.

The trick usually shows two grape halves connected by a thin sliver of skin. After a few seconds of being microwaved, they begin to spark. Though various explanations exist online, researchers wanted to study the phenomenon more rigorously.

The researcher imaged both sliced grapes and hydrogel beads—made from a material that absorbs lots of water—as they sparked in the microwave. They realized quickly that the grape skin wasn’t required in order to get the sparks, as evidenced by the sparking in the hydrogel beads, held together only by their weight and the shape of the dish they sat in, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The specific geometry of two touching water-filled circular objects in an electromagnetic field creates resonances concentrated at the point where the spheres or half-spheres intersect. This becomes a very small hotspot with a high energy density, enough to create plasma out of the ions in the region where the objects touch.

Is the research worth publishing in a journal as high-profile as PNAS? The paper’s editor, University of Illinois chemistry professor Catherine Murphy, certainly thought so. “The fact that they were rigorous enough to pass through the process of peer review is a testament that they’re doing a good job on the technical end,” she told Gizmodo.

But the paper is far more than a gimmick, Murphy said. This sort of research on directed energy could find important use in other directed-energy systems, such as explosives or high-intensity laser pulses. Additionally, the paper presents a way to image electric fields in these sorts of physical setups, and could lead to advances in photonics more generally.