Monday, June 29, 2015


You can own meteorites, the remaining pieces of the early solar system.  They are swept up by the Earth in its orbit, and survive the long fall to Earth's surface.  Some can be identified as coming from Mars, others from Luna.  Some are fragments of comets.  Most are relics of shattered planetoids.

For our ancestors, meteorites were at once harbingers of the gods, and the most ready form of iron.  We know now that some contain amino acids – the building blocks of life – and some of those are not known in native form on Earth. 
The popular beginner's book
by "fallen star" Richard Norton
You can find reputable dealers for buying and selling. If you have the opportunity for travel, you can find your own craters and fall sites and strewn fields. Rarely, but possibly, you can find a meteorite by paying close attention to the ground beneath your feet. Whatever your interest and resources, you can assemble your own museum.

First the Bad News

A New York Times article for April 4, 2011, called them “Black Market Trinkets from Space.”
“…chunks of meteorites, bits of asteroids that have fallen from the sky and are as prized by scientists as they are by collectors. As more meteorites have been discovered in recent years, interest in them has flourished and an illegal sales market has boomed — much to the dismay of the people who want to study them and the countries that consider them national treasures.
“It’s a black market,” said Ralph P. Harvey, a geologist at Case Western Reserve University who directs the federal search for meteorites in Antarctica. “It’s as organized as any drug trade and just as illegal.”
Paperback 288 pages
University of Arizona Press, 1997.
The trend is for modern governments such as Turkey, Egypt, and Libya, to sue other modern governments such as the United Kingdom and the Unites States of America, for the return of “cultural patrimony”. 

By comparison, in numismatics, dealers and collectors often find  themselves standing against the interests of museums, especially those operated by governments. The Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild was formed to lobby Congress, and to sue in courts for the rights of collectors.  And it is not just about coins.  Coins do signal to metal detectors, but they are only the most common artifacts of any Western civilization since 500 BCE.  Where you find coins, you find oil lamps, amphoras, and other ceramic household goods.

Patrimonial claims open many doors. The American Museum of Natural History was sued by a Native American council that claimed that the Willamette Meteorite was sent by the gods to communicate with their people before the arrival of other people on this continent.
New York, New York - June 22, 2000 -- The American Museum of Natural History and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon today signed a historic agreement that ensures access to the Willamette Meteorite, a world famous scientific specimen at the Museum, by the Grand Ronde for religious, historical, and cultural purposes while maintaining its continued presence at the Museum for scientific and educational purposes. The agreement recognizes the Museum's tradition of displaying and studying the Meteorite for almost a century, while also enabling the Grand Ronde to re-establish its relationship with the Meteorite with an annual ceremonial visit to the Meteorite.  (AMNH Archives here.
To my knowledge, no museum curator has spoken up for the numismatists.  However, the New York Times article cited above also included this quote: "We have a co-operative relationship with the collectors," said Monica Grady, a leading meteorite scientist at Britain's Open University. "We can't afford to go out and collect, but this small army of dealers will do it."

In 2012, the federal Bureau of Land Management created three licenses for people who want to hunt for meteorites on federally-held lands. 
                Casual collection of small quantities without a permit
                Scientific and educational use by permit under the authority of the Antiquities Act
                Commercial collection of meteorites through the issuance of land-use permits
(See Space.Com archives here.)

As with any collecting hobby, two axioms inform buyers and sellers alike: 
  1. Knowledge is king. 
  2. If you don’t know your material, then know your seller.  

Dealers formed the International Meteorite Collectors Association (here). In order to join the club, you must have recommendations from two members.  Their website is not completely clear on what that means, so I emailed an enquiry.  It means that you must have an established buyer-seller relationship with at least two of their members.  

The Meteoritical Society (here) was founded in 1933 by professional and amateur scientists in order to organize the study of meteorites and planets. 

Austin’s Russ Finney created a website to provide information. You can find others online.  Some dealers are members of several societies.  Again looking to numismatics as a reference point, if a dealer is a member of several societies, then that increases their social capital: they have more resources to lose if things go wrong. 

I bought my first meteorite about 20 years ago from an ANA member who advertised them under the “Other Collectibles” heading in the classified ads of The Numismatist. I received two more from a friend who teaches science.  She bought them from a mentor who opened a rocks and minerals store after he retired. 

Personally, I have not done business with any of the firms listed here. I offer them as benchmarks for the size of the hobby network. Note that these are live links: they do not open new pages unless you take the option with your own mouse.
Aerolite Meteorites
(Note that while the site is in the Dot.Org domain, the firm is incorporated as a for-profit enterprise.  The owner, Geoff Notkin, also owns the label as an LLC.  The accounting rules derive from his many activities.
"I am a science writer, meteorite hunter, and photographer, television host and producer, and have had the good fortune to participate in exciting expeditions across much of the world, in search of meteorites and other natural history treasures. I am host the multi award-winning TV adventure series Meteorite Men on the Science Channel and won two Emmys for my work in educational television with STEM Journals. I am a member of The Explorers Club, The International Meteorite Collectors Association, The Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the International Dark-Sky Association, and the Society of Southwestern Writers."


Friday, June 19, 2015

The Ferengi Rules of Commerce

Intended as humor or parody, this little book offers a megagram of useful – if contradictory – advice.

Before the invention of the Ferengi in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek universe never had much room for trade and commerce. In the Original Series, Star Fleet dominated Earth and the Federation of Planets. It was a command economy. Whether mining colonies, exploration, war, or agriculture, the process of decision-making was hidden from the viewers, but it clearly was not via the market or bought with money.  

In the Original Series, the only traders we met were Cyrano Jones (who sold tribbles) and Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd.  Neither was heroic, or dashing, or even especially intelligent. In the Next Generation episode The Neutral Zone we met a life ship of cryogenically preserved humans, one of whom insisted on checking on his Wall Street profits.  Captain Picard must explain that now, in our time, we do not care about the acquisition of things, but on improving ourselves.

Then came the Ferengi. Originally introduced in ST:NG The Last Outpost, they did not acquire any substance of character until Deep Space Nine. Armin Shimerman played the bartender (and bar owner), Quark.

It comes out in The Siege of AR 558 (Deep Space Nine), that planet Ferengeran never knew imperialism, racism, or slavery.

I confronted Armin Shimerman at a trekker con in Livonia, Michigan, in the early 21st century.  He said that he had read The Fountainhead in college and was going to revisit the works of Ayn Rand in preparation for the up-coming season.

This book is presented as the distilled wisdom of Ferengi society. It is necessarily discontinuous because the rules were invented ad hoc by the writers of the scripts, who apparently were communists.
·       #1.  Once you have their money, never give it back.
·       #3.  Never pay more for an acquisition than you have to.
·       #8. Small print leads to large risks.
·       #13. Anything worth doing is worth doing for money.
·       #27. There is nothing more dangerous than an honest businessman.
·       #58. There is no substitute for success.
·       #62. The riskier the road, the greater the profit.
·       #79. Beware of the Vulcan greed for knowledge.
·       #109. Dignity and an empty sack is worth the empty sack.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Salsa Showdown: Jaime's versus Royito's

In the movies, when those two guys are standing there, the streets are already cleared, so I am not going to say which one is better.  It depends … on you, the day, the time, the food, the stove, the grill, the guests…  They are different enough that you could serve them both. 
Royito's Sharon demoing at Whole Foods 

Don't do mild.  “Royito’s is dedicated to and inspired by Roy’s dad, Big Roy, who taught him three things: be kind to everyone you meet, keep it simple, and never do mild. “Don’t Do Mild” is therefore not just a clever hot sauce tagline, it is a way of life. The purpose of Royito’s is to inspire people to not “do mild” in life by following their own passion and purpose. At the heart of this movement is loving what you do and doing what you love, and never giving up on your dreams.” --

84 Years in Austin “In 1931 a little Tex-Mex restaurant opened in Austin just steps from the University of Texas and the State Capitol. 40 years later, Jaime Tames, and ex bull-fighter from San Luis Potosi, Mexico took over the establishment, bringing with him his famous Jaime’s Margarita’s and charismatic
At Wheatsville Co-Op
personality. Jaime was behind the bar every night, telling stories, serving drinks, and making sure everyone was having a good time. The walls of the restaurant were covered with decades of photos of patrons doing just that. It quickly became an Austin institution, with politicians from the Capitol having lunch, University of Texas Students having dinner with their families, and Longhorn fans piling in before and after the sporting events. At the time that the restaurant closed in July 2010, it was the longest operating restaurant in Austin. The tradition lives on through our original Jaime’s salsa and queso.”--

If you put "food" in the Search box, you will find about 20 posts, among them these:

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Two Books on Fermat’s Last Theorem

By the fifth grade, kids learn enough arithmetic and geometry to appreciate the challenge in Fermat’s Last Theorem.  FLT stood for about 350 years as an unsolved problem. Then, on June 23, 1993, Andrew Wiles concluded a three-day lecture by proving it – almost. Closer inspection revealed some difficulties, and Wiles sat down again with a cup of pencils and a ream of white paper.  He also brought on Richard Taylor, a former student who had been one of the judges who condemned Wiles’ initial demonstration. On October 24, 1994, they announced the publication of two papers that achieved the proof. 

Much has been published about FLT. Just search Amazon, limited to Books, for “Fermat’s.”  Easily the two most popular works are Fermat’s Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem by Amir D. Aczel (New York and London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996) and Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh (New York: Walker, 1997; Anchor Doubleday, 1998).   I found the Aczel book to be contaminated with errors.  I found no mistakes in Singh’s work.

Aczel earned his BA in mathematics at UC Berkeley in 1975, and finished his MS the next  year.  He then was awarded a doctorate by the University of Oregon for research in statistics. In addition to this book, he authored 17 others, plus two textbooks.  (See  So, he was fully competent to have known better.
Close up of upper right of Pierre Fermat's face with many numbers running back and forth
A book with more problems than
the publisher intended.

The first mistake is on page 6. The illustration is supposedly a reproduction of Fermat’s marginal note in a bilingual (Latin-Greek) edition of Arithmetica by Diophantus. The Greek is medieval rendering in upper and lower case with one emendation in [square brackets]. But the note is not there. In fact, no such note exists. (Simon Singh's book also offers a version of the page, but, again, no note.)  The claim was made by Pierre Fermat's son and editor, Charles.

To give the reader a feel for the life and times of Pythagoras, Aczel takes you around the Mediterranean. However, he cites places such as Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes that came two hundred years later.  Pythagoras might also never have seen the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Having been destroyed in the 7th century BCE, it was rebuilt, only started in 550 BCE (perhaps by Croesus), when Pythagoras was 20.  

Aczel confuses modern Italy with its ancient character.  “In the barren stark surroundings of the tip of Italy...” (pg. 17).  Greeks colonized Italy to relieve overcrowding and political frictions in their home cities. They would not have chosen barren countryside. Croton, Taras, Sybaris, and the other towns were in green and fertile lands back then.

Leaving the ancient world for the substantive subject, Aczel claims (pg. 37): “The Fibonacci sequence appears everywhere in nature.”  Maybe it really is in the Stefan-Boltzmann Law and I just do not see it.  

Aczel falls into sophomoric humor when he writes “It is believed…” (pg. 27) and “The cossists were considered…” (pg. 42) “…our normal three-dimensional world…” (pg. 49; a nice pun, as those three of our four common dimensions are at right angles–normal–to each other).  “Mordell was unable to prove his discovery, and it became known as Mordell’s conjecture.” (pg. 87) The last is interesting because Aczel denigrates Denis Diderot for “knowing no mathematics” (pg. 48) though clearly Aczel seems deficient in philosophy if he believes that lack of proof leaves us with the Lock Ness Conjecture.  See the Addendum below for similar humor.

Pierre Fermat's face framed in a triangle, inside a circle, framed by text in rectangles
No complaints
Aczel writes past significant steps in his story.  He never stops to explain Galois theory or Galois representations (pg. 72, pg. 120). He never says what a Zeta function is (pp. 99-100).  The Horizontal Iwasawa Theory (pg. 121, pg. 132) may be very hard to explain briefly, even for an accomplished writer of popular mathematics books, but he gives no context whatsoever; he just drops the name and moves on.

Some of the problems with this book can be blamed on the editors.  I am not always sure about that versus which (pg. 121).  However, I am pretty sure that if Leonhard Euler went to St. Petersburg in 1827 (pg. 47), then he was 120 years old. 

Fermat's Last Theorem is one of very many topics in mathematics that could entertain and motivate school children. (For others, see The Man Who Loved Only Numbers reviewed here on this blog.) Appreciating the story of the Taylor-Wiles Proof may require more than an eighth grade education.  But you do not have to do anything special to "make mathematics fun."  It either is or it is not.  However, an educational system that rewards itself for the outcomes of statewide standardized tests will have much less room for the fun in mathematics

"It has long been known" ... I didn't look up the original reference.
"Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study" ... The other results didn't make any sense.
"In my experience" ... Once.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Unremarkable Origin of Species

The most surprising facts are (1) Darwin’s Origin of Species is still a lightning rod for religious fundamentalists and (2) in various locales those fanatics actually gain control of publicly-funded education. 

Unlike Galileo’s Two New Sciences and William Gilbert’s De Magnete (both reviewed on this blog), Darwin’s work stood on a generation of similar explorations and discoveries.  Darwin was only in the right place and time to earn 150 years of rebuke.  Moreover, The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or: the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life took the uniformitarian side against catastrophism in what we now regard as a false dichotomy.  Nonetheless, his theory is surprisingly robust despite the fact that he had no way to know the actual mechanisms of inheritance. 

Two girls about 10 and 8 years of age examine a lower leg bone which is larger and longer than both of them put together.
World's Largest Dinosaur.
Cleveland Museum of Natural History here.
Darwin acknowledged George Leclerc Comte de Buffon, George Cuvier, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire, and ten others, before concluding with Herbert Spencer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and (“Darwin’s bulldog”) Thomas Henry Huxley.  All of them asserted with various evidences and arguments that the species we know today did not always exist.  That roster began with Aristotle who pointed out that the forms of our teeth—incisors in front, molars in back—developed by adaptation.

Darwin apparently did not know the work of William Smith who mapped the geological strata of England.  Smith sought to predict the presence of coal deposits, in part, by noting that simpler forms of prehistoric animals never appear above more complex forms of the same type.  (On NecessaryFacts here.) 

In 649 pages (Modern Library paperback, 1998), Darwin laboriously details the small facts of variation, and the consequences of them for survival and reproduction.  Accepting Charles Lyell’s estimate that the Earth is more than 300 million years old, Darwin sought to demonstrate that over spans of geological time, many small changes accumulate into large and permanent differences among both plants and animals. It seems hard to argue against that.