“I wonder what Rob’s going to make of that meteor,” Mitch’s wife said to him at home, as he sat at his computer anxiously pecking out an email to his group’s secretary regarding the validity of the multiple-entry Russian visa he and Conrad had obtained some 14 months earlier, when they had attended a scientific meeting at the Sternberg Astronomical Institute in Moscow. “Remember that time—when was that? When Rob asked your mom to check out that crate of rocks he brought back from Israel?”
Mitch remembered. He remembered many things about Rob Collins, his oldest friend and now his brother-in-law, especially the wide, blue-eyed gaze of utmost interest that he wore when they first met. It was a look of sincerity and openness that he amazingly still bore more than 40 years later, even though his hairline had retreated to the crown and his face grown ruddy and broad. That look of innocence was never feigned. In high school he had engaged simply and unguardedly, almost joyously, with everything and everyone that crossed his path—except when it came to his homework. He unaffectedly held the trust of the other boys in their group, boys who were mostly acquiring top grades and preparing themselves for college while Rob barely managed to keep up, never excelling at anything other than shop classes and sports. But he had successfully built a working roadster in his garage and used to take them for rides whenever they asked.
“Maybe Rob would like to go rock collecting with you in Russia.” Sharon’s agile voice managed to sound derisive and cheery at the same time. Although she too liked Rob, she delighted in making fun of his simple-minded view of the world. “God Smites Evil Empire With Giant Rock,” she added. Mock headlines were her form of haiku.
Mitch responded to her sarcasm with a grunt. He understood his wife’s point: Rob might be inclined to read something supernatural into the Earth’s dramatic event that afternoon. But he didn’t want to take up his brother-in-law’s unscientific notions about meteors or Israeli rocks just then.
Like many scientists, Mitch managed two lives, lived in two different realities. One was the ordinary world of morning showers, meals, dental appointments. The other one was made up of the ring of boulders swarming between Mars and Jupiter, any one of which, suddenly perturbed, might enter a path that could lead to a collision with Earth. The quotidian domain was one that he more or less occupied without giving it much attention, aside from the demands of his physical body and the needs of his family; the other involved almost all of his conscious thought and engaged most of his time. He didn’t mind his wife making fun of Rob, but there was actually never a moment in all the years when Mitch wouldn’t have enjoyed his company. He would be glad if Rob were somehow useful and they could go off together to Siberia. But that thought vanished altogether during the turbulent flight from Los Angeles to Moscow and then a chaotic meeting in the airport with a longtime friend from the Vernadsky Institute. After that came an Aeroflot flight to Chelyabinsk with a member of the meteor committee of the Russian Academy of Science, with whom Conrad had been in recent contact in regard to asteroid DA14, which was expected to pass inside the orbit of communications satellites on the very same day the meteor, by amazing coincidence, struck Siberia.
Though jet lagged, cold-numbed, and overly stimulated by the prospects awaiting him, Mitch was aware of his good fortune. That this meteor event had happened in his own lifetime was remarkable enough, but also that he, Mitch, was in perfect position to view its aftermath and to collect—with his own hands—the pieces of meteoric rock that could tell the tale of the parental asteroid’s origin within the solar system: What a trip!
The following day, still sleep-deprived, his digestion reacting badly to unfamiliar food, Mitch was approached at the counter of the Wall Street Coffee Shop by a fellow in a mustard-yellow leather cap. “You want buy?” the man asked, holding out his hand. In the hand were two knuckle-sized rocks. He pointed upwards. “From sky,” he said. “Boom.”
“Where did you find them?” asked Mitch. “Over there?” He pointed to the north. “There?” to the east, then to the south, and the west. The man’s eyes and hand remained pointed toward the west. It was, as Mitch already knew, the direction of the meteor’s path. Mitch intended to follow that path himself. It was a matter of pride. If he failed, then meteoric fragments would no doubt be available to him for a few more days in the coffee shops of Chelyabinsk, before the international dealers snapped them up.
You can read the rest of Planetary Science here.