Opinion

In 1923, a Kansan saw a fireball overhead. He helped popularize a new science.

November 28, 2021 3:33 am

Researcher Harvey Nininger cuts a meteorite with a saw. A biologist by training, Nininger ended up devoting his life to the study of meteorites. (Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

Look up.

The Kansas sky on a clear winter’s night is a picture window to the universe. Seek out a place where, as the astronomers say, the seeing is good — my local favorite is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City — and you can peer into a star-spangled slice of the Milky Way. You can’t see the whole universe, because the farthest star one can see with the naked eye is only a few thousand light years distant, but you can get a good view of the neighborhood.

These night skies have got me to thinking about science, and how Kansans have often led the way in advancing our understanding of the universe, despite notorious missteps along the way. Among those far-seeing individuals who dedicated themselves to scientific fact was Harvey Nininger.

I was reminded of Nininger’s story this past week because of the NASA mission, launched Tuesday, to test whether crashing a satellite into an asteroid can change its path — and potentially save earth from cosmic apocalypse. After researching meteorites in Kansas for more than a decade, in fits and starts, I have come to regard Nininger’s story as foundational.

One night in November 1923, Nininger, a biologist by training, saw a fireball streak overhead as he chatted with a friend near his home in McPherson. Nininger chalked the trajectory of the fireball on the sidewalk, thinking he might be able to track it down. He never did find it, but during the next 60 years he located thousands of others. By the 1940s, he was believed to have located half of all the meteorites that had so far been identified anywhere on the surface of the earth. He was awed by the number of meteorites to be found in his home state.

“Verily,” he wrote in 1933, “Kansas has been the target of the universe.”

It was here that the study of space rocks became a discipline — and Kansas is still where meteorite hunters come to find meteorites so big they have to be dug out of the fields with backhoes. Although Kansas accounts for just 2% of the total land mass of the United States, about 10% of all verified meteorite finds have come from the state.

This isn’t because Kansas is a bullseye in a cosmic shooting gallery, but because from 1923 on, Nininger crisscrossed the state, educating local populations about meteorites and offering $1 a pound for the space rocks. More importantly, western Kansas is flat, highly cultivated, sparsely developed, and relatively arid. Because most meteorites are rich in iron and nickel, they rust and eventually disintegrate. A dry climate slows that disintegration. That’s why other great places to hunt meteorites include the American Southwest, the African deserts, and the Antarctic.

“Kansas, especially its western part, is considered a good place to find meteorites because it is open country with few terrestrial rocks at the surface, heavily cultivated, and clear of trees and human development,” according to Daniel R. Suchy of the Kansas Geological Survey in a 2007 circular. “Thus, anything out of the ordinary shows up readily. In addition, western Kansas is a relatively arid region where meteorites may disintegrate more slowly than in some other regions.”

 

The night sky in winter stretches above the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas meteorite farm

But it’s more than terrain that has made Kansas one of the best places to hunt meteorites. It may also have something to do with the character of the state’s inhabitants, who are disproportionately represented in the history of meteoritics.

Since the late 19th century, Kansans have been unusually keen on meteorites, beginning with a pioneer woman named Eliza Kimberly. As a young bride, Eliza was dragged from her home in Iowa to the sand dunes of Kiowa County, Kansas, where she began to collect the strangely heavy black rocks that her husband, Frank, would pull from the fields. Eliza believed the rocks she began collecting in 1882 were meteorites and began a letter-writing campaign to get somebody to verify them. Scientists from Washburn University and the American Museum of Natural History did just that. Not only were the Kimberly rocks meteorites, they were also among the most uncommon and beautiful type, a stony-iron called pallasites. They are made of olivine crystals embedded in an iron-nickel alloy and come from the core-mantle boundary of a nascent planet that broke up to make the asteroids strewn between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. When sectioned and polished, the resulting slabs resemble stained glass studded with green gems and framed by a honeycomb matrix of bright metal.

It is a tradition that meteorites are named for the nearest geopolitical landmark — in this case, the nearest post office, two and a half miles away at the tiny community of Brenham (in unpopulated regions such as Antarctica, meteorites are typically assigned numbers). The meteorites from this Kiowa County strewn field are still known as Brenham today, even though all that is left as a reminder of the community is a lone grain elevator next to the Santa Fe railway tracks.

After Eliza began selling visiting scientists and museums pieces of her collection, the homestead became known as the “Kansas Meteorite Farm.” She paid off the mortgage on the homestead early. While she sold her strangely heavy rocks to scientists as far away as Europe, the person who would begin to unlock the secrets of the Brenham fall was much closer at hand. That person was Nininger, who seemed a poor candidate to tease anything from the universe. He had grown up south of Wichita in a religious sect called the Church of the Brethren, but which was commonly called the Dunkards. The nickname comes from the habit of immersing believers three times in water. The sect regarded nonconformity with the contemporary world as a virtue, refused oaths and military service, and favored simple and old-fashioned clothing often associated with Mennonites. His family’s cabin contained few books, Nininger recalled in his autobiography, and not a single book on natural history.

Yet, in the 1920s, Nininger was the first person to declare himself a professional meteorite hunter. When he saw the fireball streak overhead, he was a biology professor at McPherson College, a private liberal arts college associated with the Church of the Brethren. Nininger is now regarded as the father of meteoritics, a relatively new science that has supplied clues not only to the way the world began but how it is likely to end.

There are two other major classifications of meteorites, stones and irons. Stones are similar in composition to rocks found on earth, and they account for more than 90% of known falls and finds. Irons, made of varying proportions of iron and nickel, make up about 6%. Irons and pallasites are easier to spot and to find using metal detectors, notes Suchy in the Kansas Geological Survey circular, and thus dominate most meteorite collections.

In the 1920s, Arthur Nininger was the first person to declare himself a professional meteorite hunter. When he saw the fireball streak overhead, he was a biology professor at McPherson College, a private liberal arts college associated with the Church of the Brethren. Nininger is now regarded as the father of meteoritics, a relatively new science.

– Max McCoy

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Falls, finds and strewn fields

Some terminology is in order here. The term “meteor” describes a streak of light, commonly called a falling star, produced when space matter falls through the atmospheres and is heated by friction to incandescence; a “meteoroid” is any matter that is too small to be considered an asteroid or comet; and a “meteorite” is a meteoroid that reaches the earth without being vaporized. Meteor, in classical times, denoted an atmospheric phenomenon, and is also the parent word for the study of terrestrial weather, a science unrelated to meteoritics.

Finally, a “fall” is when a meteorite reaches the earth and its passage is witnessed and noted, and in contemporary times results in meteorite hunters racing one another to the area of suspected touchdown. A “find” is when the meteorite was not seen to fall, but is found on the ground, sometimes thousands of years after arrival. A “strewn field” is an area where the meteorites pelted the earth.

During the Great Depression, Nininger struggled to continue his meteoritic investigations; he traveled the state, speaking to any group that would have him, showing meteorite samples and promising a dollar or two a pound for anyone who could find more. He scraped together enough funds to lead his McPherson college students on meteorite expeditions as far away as South America, cataloguing historic finds and gathering new data from the strewn fields. His great rival was Lincoln La Paz, also a native Kansan, born in Wichita. La Paz was 10 years younger than Nininger, had taught at Dartmouth, and earned a doctorate in 1928. While Nininger was also called “doctor,” the title was honorific; the highest degree he held was a master’s in biology.

In 1934, Nininger excavated (with a bulldozer) what he believed was a crater made by the Brenham meteorite’s main mass. While he recovered thousands of small meteorites, he was puzzled to find nothing heavier than 100 pounds; conventional wisdom said a big rock had to be at the bottom of the hole (we now know the fragments spread out, like celestial buckshot). The “crater” was a shallow depression southeast of the Kimberly home that the pioneers had thought was a buffalo wallow — and it may have been. Bison were becoming scarce when the Kimberlys moved to Kiowa County, but they were still seen as late as 1889. When the depression was guessed to be from a meteorite, it was called Haviland Crater, for the nearest town, a Quaker community two miles to the east named for Laura Smith Haviland, a famous abolitionist who never visited her namesake.

The Brenham meteorite figures heavily in the history of science and meteorites. Before the space program, meteorites were the only samples from beyond the earth that scientists could study, and they still offer some of the best data for the formation of the solar system. And every few decades since Eliza Kimberly began picking up her strangely heavy rocks — that is, with each new advance in understanding or technology — the Brenham strewn field has produced a spectacular new find, and inspired another meteorite rush in Kiowa County.

 

Meteorite hunter Steve Arnold poses in 2009 with a meteorite recovered from a field near Admire. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

The Space Wanderer

In 1949, for example, H.O. Stockwell used a metal detector to find a half-ton rock on the Kimberly homestead. Stockwell was an electronics repairman at Hutchinson when he had the idea for a metal detector specially designed to find meteorites. He sent his schematics to the Hedden Company, which was building mine detectors for the Army, and soon he had a strange contraption that looked like a table-top radio mounted on a spindly wooden wheelbarrow. Not far from the Kimberly homestead, he found the world’s largest pallasite meteorite — a 1,000-pound rock he christened the Space Wanderer. A few months later, the city of Greensburg agreed to purchase the meteorite, for $1,250, as the centerpiece of a museum to be located adjacent to the Big Well.

Nininger, meanwhile, had ranged far from Kansas.

In 1946, he established a meteorite museum in a fortress-like red sandstone building alongside Route 66 near Meteor Crater in Arizona and began selling specimens to the public.

For all of his adult life, Nininger would challenge the cornerstones of faith he had learned as a child; not only would he denounce belief in a 6,000-year-old earth, but he would come to chide the president of the Brethren college at McPherson for not teaching evolution. But Nininger never rejected faith, and he sometimes wrestled with problems that might seem trivial to most of us; because the Dunkards forbid the wearing of jewelry, even wedding rings, he felt guilty when he tried to have the Brenham peridot set into a ring for his wife, Addie. When the gemstones proved too fragile to be mounted and shattered, he concluded it was probably for the best.

Nininger, who was born in 1887, lived not only to see meteoritics become a well-defined discipline, but also to watch the moon landings on television. Throughout his life, he fought a battle of reason with his church. While he believed in God, he thought it foolish to reject evolution or to believe the earth only 6,000 years old. When McPherson College would write him letters asking for money, the elderly Nininger would gently lecture the Brethren institution on the need to advance science instead of stand in its way.

Nininger died in 1986, at the age of 99. He had outlived Lincoln La Paz by one year.

 

Steve Arnold’s Humvee tows a metal detector coil across a field near Greensburg in 2007. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

The biggest rock

In October 2005, another Kansan made headlines again, this time by pulling an even bigger meteorite from the Brenham strewn field. Steve Arnold, a native of Fort Scott, found a 1,430-pound space rock in a wheat field not far from the original Kimberly property, by using a large metal detector coil towed behind his bright yellow Hummer. It is the largest piece of the Brenham meteorite yet found, and the world’s largest “oriented pallasite.” Oriented means it stabilized during its fall, and was forged by the atmosphere into a domed shape like a spacecraft heat shield.

Like Nininger, Arnold declared himself a professional meteorite hunter.

The discovery landed Arnold in newspapers and magazines around the world. Television was full of him, from the “Today” show to the cable series “Cash and Treasures.” He and his meteorite-hunting partner, Geoff Notkin, even had their own reality show, “Meteorite Men,” which ran on the Discovery channel from 2009 to 2012.

Today, the big rock Arnold found is in a private collection out of state. Stockwell’s Space Wanderer can be seen at the Big Well Museum and Visitors Center at Greensburg, a new facility built after a 2007 tornado devastated the town.

Go visit, if you have the chance.

The story of meteorites in Kansas is one of passion, rivalry and incremental advancements of what we know about the universe. It’s also a story of imagination, dedication to science and those clear winter nights when you can almost see the edge of forever.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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