CCNet-ESSAY, 14 July 1999
DIARY OF A FIREBALL: OR HOW NOT TO DO SCIENCE
By Ian Griffin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This is the tale of an ongoing news story, concerning a bright fireball
seen by many observers over New Zealand told from my perspective.
All names are real and used without permission! I hasten to add that
all of the information and ideas contained are spur of the moment, and
all ideas and theories are subject to change. This paper has not
undergone peer review. This is very much a stream of consciousness
document and I do apologize for lack of grammar, and weird sentences.
However it does seem to convey some of what has gone on here over the
last few days. I am sure I will regret sending in to CCNet.
Allow me to set the scene. I am Director of the Auckland Observatory, a
charitable trust located in One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand's
largest City. We have a 20 inch Zeiss telescope which is used for
research and public viewing, and a small public planetarium. We are
open 7 days per week, working with schools, the public and amateur
astronomers, with a mission to "enhance the public understanding and
enjoyment of Astronomy."
DAY 1: Wednesday 7th July 1999
It all started at about 4:30pm. Jennie McCormick, the assistant
education officer came into my office just having got off the 'phone
from speaking to an excited woman who had just reported a fireball. As
it was still daytime, and the woman had said the fireball was "as
bright as the sun" we figured that something quite interesting had
happened and that we had better start to prepare ourselves.
We dug up our meteor/fireball report form and started photocopying as
the 3 phone lines lit up. We put the photocopier onto automatic and
started answering the phones.
I decided (on the fly!) that the most efficient policy was to get
names and phone numbers of everyone who called with a report, and then
send out forms with return postage paid envelopes attached, in the hope
that people would return them.
However, we (namely Jennie, myself, Andrew Buckingham, Jim Robinson and
Lucy Dodson) also took details and "initial" bearings from lots of
people, just in case. The event was obviously spectacular, and there
were pronounced sonic effects. The excitement of the witnesses was
something to behold.
Some idiot (me) decided it would be fun to plot the bearings of the
event on a map "in real time" so visitors to our observatory could see
what was going on "as it happened". Hell, this is how science is done
(isn't it?) so lets involve the public!
It was at this point that the difficulties started. First we could not
find a map of New Zealand, and the shops are shutting.
Second, having only arrived in the country 4 weeks ago, and not having
had a chance to learn much local geography nor *any* Maori, I
immediately run into spelling problems.
How would *you* spell 'Whanganui' and 'Ngongotaha'? Annoyed by my
ignorance the rest of the staff relieve me of phone answering duties,
and tell me to get on with "The Map Project".
While this is going on, in the background, we are trying to find out
We turn on local radio, and find a TV.
5pm Radio reporting possibility of a plane exploding
6pm TV News reporting most likely a meteor/fireball/satellite re-entry
according to "experts" (who?)
6pm first local radio interview by phone
6:02pm 2nd local radio interview by phone
6:04pm all phones taken up by staff being interviewed. We all ask
everyone who saw the event or heard sounds to call in. We
speculate on the size of the object (pea sized seems quite
unlikely at this stage!)
7pm call from TVNZ to see if I can come in for "Breakfast" TV; (they
obviously couldn't find anyone from the University stupid enough to
come in at this ungodly hour)
8pm-11pm take calls, take calls, take calls.
6pm-10pm try and watch TV to see who knows what's going on (we don't,
but are beginning to suspect a big bolide from descriptions). See the
brilliant video shot by farmer of the after effects and the sonic
boom - cool! Lots of reading up about meteors and bolides takes place,
and all the time the press want to know "how big was it?", "where did
it land?" and "Was Nostradamus right?" (I don't know, I don't know,
DAY 2: Thursday 8th July
Up at 5:30am to check e-mail (220 messages; NZ is a really switched on
country!) and to get taxi to TV studio. I bring small iron meteorite as
visual aid (every astronomer should have one!)
07:10 interview. Ask all people who saw event to phone observatory with
details; ask for people to check security cameras and tell
presenter that scientific value of meteorites far outweighs
financial and that any strange material should be reported.
07:50 I arrive at work to find phones lit up (AGAIN!) and answer machine
I receive an e-mail which shows that some clever person has already
calculated the energy of the event from a recording of the video tape
shown on TV last night. Amazing!
From someone (I think Dr. Joel Schiff, a real meteorite expert who
works in the Dept of mathematics at the University of Auckland) I
hear that geologists have got seismic data (woo hoo!)
I eventually find out that real time seismic data from six stations
detected something (THE BOOM?) and chase up Terry Webb at the
Geological Survey to discover what he knows.
Terry is busy modeling the data! He also says that real time data from
six stations is available, and that there may be more from data
recorders in the Taranaki region. I give Terry my e-mail address, and
beg him to let me know when he gets any details (just so I don't look
too silly when talking to the press who are still calling to see what
Meanwhile the phones continue to bring new information. We get reports
from observers some of whom describe sonic boom effects. Some saw the
flash of the explosion and timed the delay until the bang was heard.
Some people are so smart! Reports come in from all over New Zealand.
Many observers report that the fireball was visible for only a short
time (less than 3 seconds).
Radio reports that some wise person in America has offered $25,000 (US)
for a sample of the meteorite. Bugger! Now everyone and their aunt
want us to pay them for information. We now spend more time telling
callers that no, we will not sell their information nor will we make
any money from it than we do getting their names and addresses.
I finally buy map of NZ to put up on display.
I stick the map on a big wall in the reception area and along with
Jennie start plotting data. After only a few points it looks like the
object may have done its thing somewhere over the Taranaki region or
out at sea. Still too early, and too few reliable data points.
Radio 5 Live in UK ring. They want me to do a joint interview over the
phone with an eyewitness (I am by this stage an "expert"). I overhear
an intro which mentions forest fires started by impact! As there were
no fires, neither I nor the witness (whose name I don't know!) know
anything about this and say so. The witness rather amusingly describes
the idea that the impact started forest fires as "Hogwash". Inspired by
this I manage to use the word 'funky' when describing the event. Oh
well, there goes my BBC career.
BBC World service ring, but don't want to talk to us (should we feel
insulted?) They ask for the number of the Carter Observatory in
Wellington. Carter staff are as busy as us answering phones and trying
to collect information. I manage to contact them and see if they know
any more than us (nope! they are busy answering phones too!)
Radio Scotland ring too and I do a quick interview about what we know
(not much!) This leaves me wondering if Radio Wales and Radio Northern
Ireland don't care about meteors!
Finally Fox TV Chicago ring to see if we can do an interview. Oh yes,
can we stay up until midnight our time to do it.(Andrew Buckingham is
delegated!) It is by now 11pm, and we are all tired.
I talk to the NZ Herald (a natioanl paper) and a bunch of other local
newspapers and again put out a request for observers to contact us.
Jennie and I are photographed with "The Map" which now seems to show a
bunch of visual observers agreeing that the explosive event was in a
pretty remote area above the Taranaki region.
"The Map" has now become a media Mecca with film crews coming from all
over to capture its image. Although we emphasize that it is provisional
and rough, no-one seems to care.
Meanwhile Terry Web e-mails that he has calculated a "line" above which
"the sound" recorded by the real time seismographs may have originated.
I gleefully plot this on our map to see if any of our visual observers
put the explosion anywhere near this line (They do!!!)
Day 3: Friday 9th July
e-mail rumours fly that US satellite network detected the event. I
tried to find who I need to talk to about this (What is the phone
number of the Pentagon anyway?)
Our rough plots (based on visual witness data) continue to show that
explosion may have taken place over south part of North Island.
Terry Webb e-mails that more seismic data has come in from tapes and
that further analysis has started.
I send off request for help to minor planet mailing list (MPLIST) to
see if anyone had any advice about how to do this properly! (i.e.
coordinate visual observers!) Although we have been trying to think of
everything, we figure we had better seek advice, in the hope that the
data we do get is of eventual use to someone.
On a whim I try and chase up Barometric data for the Taranaki area, but
being Friday afternoon this is difficult, as everyone has gone home
early to get ready to watch the Rugby tomorrow.
I made contact with John McCosh from Wanganui Astronomical Society to
try and persuade him to interview locals. He agrees! John now becomes
our eyes and ears in Taranaki. Already some people in the area are
reporting 'strange rocks'. The reporting of strange rocks spreads like
a disease all over the North Island, and we now have people from all
over telling us about strange stones they have found. Some of them even
bring them in for us to study.
In the evening I relax by observing comet 1998 T1, and sending in some
astrometry to the Minor Planet Center. I find myself wondering what
Gareth Williams would do if I send in altitude and azimuth measurements
of the fireball.
I get e-mails from scientists that begin with "please can we have your
I get e-mails from weirdos that begin with "Is this a sign of the
second coming?" (delete!)
Day 4: Saturday 10th July
From the visual data thus far reduced, we have calculated that the
object was (probably) at least 20KM up, and that many observers
recorded an explosive event, which, by triangulation we calculate
to be at
174 23 E (+/- 3 min)
39 26 S (+/-3)
from 20 observers
which is somewhere above land over the Taranaki region of New Zealand's
Late in the day Terry Web e-mails a location he has calculated from the
seismic data which puts the source of the sound agreeably close to the
position we calculate from visual data, but at a height of 37KM above the
I get contradictory e-mails about the possibility of material surviving
the explosion. Hmm... Maybe its worth going to look!
I think about how much it would cost to hire a plane to overfly
Taranaki region "just for fun".
In the evening I again relax by observing 1998 T1, 1031, & 1997 J2.
Day 5: Sunday 11th July
Day off; went to see the film "South" about Shackleton's expedition to
In the evening continued work on the reduction of visual observations.
Check phone messages at the observatory to find some people in Taranaki
are reporting finding odd stones.
Day 6: Monday 12th July
Terry Webb & The Geological Survey issue a press release detailing
their findings. Our reduction of the visual data gets a mention!
Someone has shot footage of the incoming object; he is negotiating with
TV companies to sell it. TVNZ drag me in to verify that the footage
is of a meteor. The producer does not seem to be that impressed.
WOW! I get to see what all the fuss is about and am impressed. The
video, lasting a few seconds, dramatically shows the incoming fireball
and an explosion. Shot from the top end of the South Island of New
Zealand, a long way from "ground zero" it agrees well with what the
visual observers have been reporting. TVNZ will not lend me a copy!
Ironically I have to give a talk to the Auckland Astronomical Society
on 'Asteroids And Armageddon' this evening. I discuss what we know
about the object and speculate about the chances of finding any
The story continues....
I am sure when I have time I will reflect upon what this all means!
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CCCMENU CCC for 1999