The Orgueil Meteorite
Picture of a seed capsule embedded in Orgueil meteorite fragment (arrow points to stem)
On May 14, 1864 a meteor shower fell in southern France, near the town of Peillerot. The meteorites were composed of carbonaceous chondrite, and they were given the name 'Orgueil'. Samples of the meteor shower were collected and then sent to the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in Montauban, France. From there the meteorites were disseminated to other museums throughout Europe, but two of the meteorites remained in Montauban, where they were sealed inside a glass jar.
In the early 1960s the researcher Bart Nagy was examining samples of Orgueil, and he found curious microscopic patterns in it that resembled lifelike fossils. He published his work in Nature,
and it touched off a debate that still continues to this day concerning whether any meteorites contain evidence of fossilized microscopic life.
In 1966 W.C. Tan and Sam L. VanLandingham also studied these suspected fossils in Orgueil and published pictures of them in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Meanwhile, Nagy's work had inspired researchers to look more closely at other samples of Orgueil, and so in 1962 a team of researchers from Chicago requested to examine the meteorites housed in the glass jar in the museum at Montauban.
They unsealed the glass jar, shipped one of the meteorites back to Chicago (they shipped the other one to Nagy's lab), and went to work examining it. What they found shocked them. The meteorite did not contain any microfossils, but it did contain actual plant fragments (entire seeds) and coal embedded deep inside of it.
The researchers immediately suspected that the parts of the meteorite containing the plant and coal fragments had somehow gotten attached to the meteorite and were not actually a true part of it. However, x-ray analysis ruled this suspicion out. The plant fragments were definitely embedded in the substance of the meteorite itself.
There were only 3 possibilities: The fragments were from an extraterrestrial plant; the fragments had become embedded in the meteorite accidentally; or the fragments were placed there intentionally as part of a deliberate hoax.
They eventually identified the plant seeds as belonging to a rush indigenous to southern France. This ruled out the possibility that they were extraterrestrial.
They next theorized that the plants might have somehow grown into the meteorite, but this, however, could not explain the presence of the coal.
This left only human intervention as a way to explain the presence of the plant and coal fragments.
Electron microscope photo of a possible microfossil contained in the Orgueil meteorite, discovered by VanLandingham and Tan in 1966.
Orgueil grows extremely soft and clay-like when it comes into contact with water. Therefore, the researchers theorized that if someone had wet the rock, they could have then inserted the plant fragments inside of it, where they would have remained once the meteorite had dried.
There was one problem with this hypothesis, however. If the meteorite had been soaked, manipulated, and then dried, why did it still appear as if it had a glassy fusion layer that would have been created by the heat of passing through the atmosphere?
This question was answered when further tests on the rock revealed that this fusion layer was actually dried glue. They found pieces of the original fusion layer jammed within the meteorite.
Basically, it became obvious that around 1864, before the meteorite had been sealed inside the glass jar, someone had gone to great pains first to embed plant and coal fragments inside of it, and then to coat it with glue to make it appear to have a fusion crust once again.
Why would anyone have done this? The answer is not clear, but the researchers suggested that the historical context of scientific debate in France in 1864 could offer an explanation.
The great debate occurring in France at that time centered upon the possibility of spontaneous generation. This was the idea that life can spontaneously come into existence inside of inanimate substances. On April 7, 1864 Louis Pasteur delivered a famous lecture
at the Sorbonne debunking this concept.
On May 31, 1864, shortly after this lecture, another French scientist (Cloëz) examined samples of the Orgueil meteor shower and detected in it the presence of materials resembling humic acid. He suggested that this implied the existence of life on the meteorite's parent body.
It could be that someone decided to play a joke on the French scientists by placing plant and coal fragments inside of the meteorite, hoping that the fragments would soon be found. If found, they could have been used as evidence to suggest that life had spontaneously generated within the meteorite.
If this is the case, then the carefully planned hoax backfired, because the meteorite was sealed inside a glass jar and forgotten until 1962, almost a century later.
Even though one of the Orgueil meteorites had obviously been tampered with, the researchers stressed that this did not have any bearing on whether the other Orgueil meteorites contained microfossils. That debate continues to this day.
- Edward Anders, Eugene R. DuFresne,Ryoichi Hayatsu, Albert Cavaille, Ann DuFresne, and Frank W. Fitch. "Contaminated Meteorite," Science, New Series, Volume 146, Issue 3648 (Nov.27, 1964), 1157-1161.
Text copyright © 2002 Alex Boese