In a grain, a glimpse of the cosmos

Natalie Wolchover writes: One January afternoon five years ago, Princeton geologist Lincoln Hollister opened an email from a colleague he’d never met bearing the subject line, “Help! Help! Help!” Paul Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist and the director of Princeton’s Center for Theoretical Science, wrote that he had an extraordinary rock on his hands, one that he thought was natural but whose origin and formation he could not identify. Hollister had examined tons of obscure rocks over his five-decade career and agreed to take a look.

Originally a dense grain two or three millimeters across that had been ground down into microscopic fragments, the rock was a mishmash of lustrous metal and matte mineral of a yellowish hue. It reminded Hollister of something from Oregon called josephinite. He told Steinhardt that such rocks typically form deep underground at the boundary between Earth’s core and mantle or near the surface due to a particular weathering phenomenon. “Of course, all of that ended up being a false path,” said Hollister, 75. The more the scientists studied the rock, the stranger it seemed.

After five years, approximately 5,000 Steinhardt-Hollister emails and a treacherous journey to the barren arctic tundra of northeastern Russia, the mystery has only deepened. Today, Steinhardt, Hollister and 15 collaborators reported the curious results of a long and improbable detective story. Their findings, detailed in the journal Nature Communications, reveal new aspects of the solar system as it was 4.5 billion years ago: chunks of incongruous metal inexplicably orbiting the newborn sun, a collision of extraordinary magnitude, and the creation of new minerals, including an entire class of matter never before seen in nature. It’s a drama etched in the geochemistry of a truly singular rock. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email