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Posted on July 9, 2010
People call him a modern day treasure hunter. Yet Geoffrey Notkin’s quest for meteorites is driven by a love for science, not fame and fortune.
His relentless pursuit of outer space relics has taken him to some of the most remote locales in the world. As co-host of the Science Channel’s Meteorite Men, Notkin shares his passion and adventures with the world. He also happens to wear a lot of tactical clothes while doing so.
So, how does he gear up for global space-rock missions? While filming season two of the hit show, Notkin sat down to answer that question and more.
Exactly how rare is it to find a meteorite?
The vast majority of people alive today will never find a meteorite, or even have the opportunity to touch one or hold one. Meteorites are perhaps the most elusive treasure on our planet—rarer than uranium, gold or even emeralds—and they are one of our few tangible links we have to outer space (Apollo-era lunar samples being another).
Why collect them?
Studying meteorites that have fallen to Earth can help us understand the fabric, and perhaps even the origin, of the planets and asteroids that, along with us, make up Solar System. A contemporary theory suggests that meteorites may have brought carbon, water and amino acids to our planet, thereby seeding our world with the ingredients needed to generate the simplest and earliest life forms. Spacecraft designers have studied the shapes of meteorites, and there is an international network of collectors who are passionate about space rocks.
So, meteorites are worth money to collectors and contribute unique and valuable information to academics. Who wouldn’t want a piece of outer space?
Do a lot of people find ordinary rocks and mistake them for meteorites? And do they send them to you?
Yes, every day! When I’m not working on the Meteorite Men TV series I devote much of my time to our sister company Aerolite Meteorites, which specializes in meteorite recovery and sales, as well as science writing and photography. One of the services we enjoy providing is advising people who think they may have found a rock from space. Our Guide to Meteorite Identification is one of the most popular pages on the website, and it receives tens of thousands of visits annually.
On a typical day at the Aerolite offices, we’ll receive four or five identification inquires by e-mail, one or two by phone, and perhaps one mailed-in specimen. We recommend that anyone who thinks he or she might have found a meteorite either e-mail us a few photos or send in a small sample for analysis. A lot of people take us up on that offer.
In an average year we receive thousands of requests for help in identifying suspected meteorites. We average roughly one genuine space rock for every 1,000 inquiries, and that not-very-encouraging statistic demonstrates just how rare meteorites are.
What’s the most bizarre discovery you’ve made while on a meteorite hunt?
We have found live ammunition, a Wild West revolver, two unexploded missiles, scorpions, rattlesnakes, a black bear, Frontier-era wagon wheels, gruesome vintage animal traps, aircraft parts, hand-forged tools and horseshoes, a chain big enough to hold down the Queen Mary, Civil War relics and numerous other things that we just couldn’t identify.
The strangest single incident took place when my Meteorite Men co-host Steve and I were hunting for meteorites in Kiowa County, Kan. We were searching in a field where we knew meteorites had been found about 130 years ago. We picked up a strong audio signal from a buried target and started to enthusiastically dig down to the source of that signal.
We’d excavated about two feet of rich Kansas soil when the bottom of the hole suddenly collapsed into nothingness. A few seconds later I heard a faraway splash, as clods of earth fell into invisible water, and then a terrifying whoosing, gargling sound spiraled up and out of the blackness. I thought we might have accidentally uncovered the secret entrance to the Underworld, and I jumped so far back, I must have looked like a cartoon character. Steve stood by the side of the hole, laughing and announced that we’d discovered an uncapped well of some sort.
It was funny in retrospect, but we often used to stand in a hole while digging, especially if we hit a dense clay layer. If one of us had been standing in the bottom of that hole, we could have fallen to a most unpleasant death. I make a point of not standing in holes anymore.
Will you ever get bored with looking for meteorites?
That’s a bit like asking if I think I might get bored of eating or breathing. Meteorite hunting isn’t just what I do for fun, or business, or for our television show—it’s the driving force in my life.
The thrill of uncovering a visitor from outer space is so invigorating that it makes you want to keep on doing it. Behavioral experts who study addiction and obsession could probably have a field day examining what makes us tick.
What advice would you give someone who dreams of tracking down a meteorite?
Forget about it, and get a real job! No, I’m just kidding, but a story from my college years strikes me as being appropriate here. I have a science and arts background, and graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts (I art direct the Meteorite Men and Aerolite websites, as well as much of our photography and promotion, so the media arts degree came in very handy).
During my junior year, I was fortunate enough to study with the great Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist, illustrator and writer Art Spiegelman. In the first class he lectured us about being realistic: “If you want to make money and be wealthy, then please leave my class and become a doctor or lawyer. If you’re here, it should be because you need to be an artist.”
The same advice holds true for meteorite hunters. If you think searching for meteorites might be a good way to make a quick buck, then think again. Expeditions—especially international ones—are time consuming, complicated, expensive and sometimes dangerous. You need a lot of patience, stamina, and determination, and must be willing to put the time in.
But it’s also true that there are a good number of “weekend hunters”—meteorite enthusiasts who have day jobs but go out in the field during their spare time, and some of them have been successful. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone quit their day job and start hunting meteorites. Read some books, do your research, and give it a try. I recommend The Fallen Sky by Chris Cokinos, Meteorites by Dr. Alan Carion, and Rocks from Space by O. Richard Norton.
But don’t expect to come home with something from you first hunt.
Will there be a second season of Meteorite Men?
There will most definitely be a second season of Meteorite Men. In fact, the bulk of my answers to you were written onboard a jetliner while on my way to one of our most exciting Season Two locations.
Our network, Science Channel, has been tremendously supportive of our show, and we all want Meteorite Men to be bigger and better with more science and more adventure. To that end, Steve and I spent several months looking at possible hunt locations, devising new hunting strategies and experimenting with the latest equipment and technology.
We don’t want to spoil any surprises, but I can tell you that if you enjoyed Season One of Meteorite Men, then you’re going to be blown away by Season Two. As Bachman-Turner Overdrive said: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
What has the TV show done for your industry?
Professionals and amateurs in our field have, almost universally, reported increased sales, increased website traffic and a great upsurge in the number of possible meteorites sent in for identification.
For the past thirteen years, I have been attending the annual Tucson gem and mineral shows—the largest single assemblage of natural history wonders in the world. I operate a showroom at the Tucson Hotel City Center for the first two weeks of February each year. In previous years, we received plenty of visitors, but for the 2010 show our room was packed all day, every day, for fifteen consecutive days. Many people stopped in just to tell us that they enjoyed the show and to take a photo with us or purchase a meteorite.
A few brought possible meteorites for us to see and three gold prospectors from Arizona told us they’d watched the show and then decided to hunt for meteorites themselves. “And we found this!” they said, as they pulled an amazing 7-pound stone meteorite out of a backpack. So, our series is educating the public about meteorites and encouraging people to go out and look for space rocks themselves.
During a recent hunt in Wisconsin, which was prompted by a spectacular night time fireball, Steve told me that on two separate occasions families walked up to him and said: “We saw you on television and decided we’d try meteorite hunting ourselves.” On one hand, we’re creating our own competition and, on the other, we are helping to inform viewers about the wonder of space rocks.
There is also no doubt whatsoever that new meteorites are coming to light because people have seen Meteorite Men and become inspired. That’s good for science, and it’s good for the commercial meteorite market.
Do you wear tactical pants while out on the field? What brand has worked the best for you?
Actually, I have worn tactical pants in the field and in the lab! I am a great fan of 5.11 Tactical, and we use a lot of their gear. Your readers who are familiar with the extremely high quality of tactical clothing will not need me to tell them how durable and resilient it is. Compared to ordinary clothes, 5.11 tactical pants are virtually indestructible. The terrains I’ve worked in encompass mountains, desert, prairie, frozen tundra, muddy streams and rivers, heavy forest, farmland and desolate dry lake beds.
We often use metal detectors to search for buried targets, and when I get a signal, the first thing I want to do is drop to my knees and start digging. If you do that a few times with regular cotton pants, you very quickly have no fabric left covering your skin. That’s not a good idea in areas where we might be kneeling on cactus, poison ivy, ticks or scorpions. Tactical pants are especially valuable to me in desert areas that are rife with cactus and other spiny plants. In fact, just about everything in the desert has something spiny on it! Tactical pants’ tough fabric helps protect me from cuts, abrasions and annoying insects.
I also carry a lot of small but important equipment with me: GPS, notebooks, compass, loupe, plastic bags for storing specimens, a camping knife, a small digital camera for documenting finds in situ and so on. I don’t want to be reaching into my backpack every five minutes looking for something, so the variety of pockets in my tactical pants are very useful.
What other sort of tactical gear has assisted you along the way?
I use a 5.11 Patrol Ready bag in the field and it’s invaluable. I need a rugged bag that can go anywhere with me, and keep the multitude of gadgets I need in the field, safe and in one place.
My 5.11 bag typically contains the following: My Leica digital camera, portable scale, small first aid kit, two Garmin GPS units, DSR Armor field computer, canteen, extra water and snack bars, spare parts for my metal detectors, cell phone, field notebook, pens, small towel, ballcap, maps, multi-purpose field knife and various other bits and pieces.
We work long days in the field—usually with a lot of ground to cover during a limited window of opportunity—and I can’t afford to waste time searching through a backpack or conventional suitcase trying to find what I need. My Patrol Ready bag has a full-zip top and multiple pockets, so I can locate what I want, when I want it, and it’s also a great carry-on bag for airline travel.
At beginning of Season Two of Meteorite Men, I finally retired my British army-style leather boots. I bought them in London, and they’ve been my preferred footwear for over twenty years. They are great in many situations, but they are heavy, hot in desert environments and have very poor traction on snow-covered slopes—something I discovered the hard way while filming Meteorite Men in Canada during October of 2009 (yes, that’s for all of you who watched the show and saw me fall over at Whitecourt Crater). I very recently acquired a pair of 5.11 XPRT Tactical 8″ boots, and I am already completely won over. These boots are extremely tough but also comfortable, lightweight, and attractive. Let’s be realistic here: I’m on television, and I want my gear to look good. The XPRT boots required almost no breaking in, and in a crunch I could have taken them out of the box and straight into the field.
(Images via Caroline Palmer and Suzanne Morrison © Aerolite Meteorites, LLC)