Starman: the Norwegian musician who identified the rocks from our stars

Tom Whipple in The Economist:

A few hundred thousand years before Jon Larsen, a jazz musician, carried a wooden broom onto a Norwegian roof, two asteroids bumped into each other. These asteroids were old when the sun was new. Never responsible for anything so exciting as a dinosaur extinction, for billions of years they remained cold and lifeless – time capsules from a more primitive solar system. But when they collided, they at last did something interesting: they shed some fragments. One of those fragments was as small as this full stop. For aeons, this particle was buffeted by solar winds, adrift in the cold of interplanetary space. Then one day it found itself in the path of a watery planet with a thick atmosphere. Travelling at 12,000 metres per second, melting in the intense heat, this tiny rock, once part of the oldest rocks in our solar system, dropped onto a Norwegian rooftop. According to the world’s micrometeorite experts, that should have been that. On every square metre of the planet, every year half a dozen such alien rocks land. You have most likely had one on your head. But every year so, too, does all the non-alien detritus: dust from construction, metal spherules from lorry brake pads, sand from the Sahara. These terrestrial particles outnumber the micrometeorites by a billion to one. Undeterred, standing on that Norwegian roof, Larsen swept it all up together and put it in a jiffy bag. Somewhere in those sweepings was the micrometeorite, and he was going to find it. When he began searching for stardust eight years ago, even Larsen thought he would probably be unsuccessful in separating these extraterrestrial needles from their dusty terrestrial haystacks. The scientists he contacted, from the small international community of micrometeorite experts, were certain he would be.

Until then, the only micrometeorites that had been identified were ones that had fallen to Earth aeons ago, and been locked into rock and ice or eroded by the sea. Scientists knew how important it was to understand these tiny rocks and the clues they gave us to our own planet’s formation. They also knew that there was a tantalising prospect that the complex molecules they contained might give us a hint as to how life started afterwards. Yet they had all failed to find fresh examples. In fact, so ludicrous such a search appeared that they hadn’t even tried.

They were the experts. How could a Norwegian jazz musician without a degree ever succeed?

More here.

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