[meteorite-list] Conclusive(ly) ... bedtime

From: Bernd Pauli HD <bernd.pauli_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:48:12 2004
Message-ID: <3BCB643C.5A9D9D3F_at_lehrer1.rz.uni-karlsruhe.de>

Bernd quoted:

> "It is easier to believe that two Yankee professors
> would lie than that stones would fall from heaven".

Michael Blood wrote:

> I have, of course, heard this quote but I also heard (first time on this
> list) that the above was NOT spoken by Jefferson & was not true. Does
> ANYONE know the original source of EITHER claim? (preferably both)

Hello Michael and List,

BURKE J.G. (1986) Cosmic Debris - Meteorites in History, p. 57:

It was not until October 1805 that Ellicott received published material
from France, which convinced him that stones did fall, that they had an
unusual composition and texture, and that they were generated in the
atmosphere. He advised Jefferson of his conversion, and Jefferson
responded on 25 October 1805. He wrote that he had not seen the
documents to which Ellicott referred, but that he had read Izam's
Lithologie atmosphérique, which was "an industrious collection" of
facts of the same kind:

"I do not say that I disbelieve the testimony but neither can I say I
believe it. Chemistry is too much in its infancy to satisfy us that the
lapidific elements exist in the atmosphere and that the process can be
completed there. I do not know that this would be against the laws of
nature and therefore I do not say it is impossible; but as it is so much
unlike any operation of nature we have ever seen it requires testimony
proportionately strong."

Personal comment: President Jefferson, a true child of the era of

            E n l i g h t e n m e n t
This passage indicates that Jefferson's skepticism was not about the
fall of meteorites, but about their generation in the atmosphere. It is
in this light that we should attempt to judge whether or not the remark
so often attributed to him following the fall of the Weston meteorite
two years later is apocryphal (= of doubtful authorship or authenticity)
- namely, "It is easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie
than that stones would fall from heaven." In his Discourse on Jefferson,
Samuel Latham Mitchill reported that soon after the Weston fall, he
received an account and a specimen from friends. A senator who was to
dine with Jefferson that evening asked to borrow the report and sample
to show to the President and request his comments. When presented with
the evidence, Jefferson, according to Mitchill's friend, said that "it
is all a lie." Later, on 15 February 1808, in a reply to a letter from a
citizen offering to send a fragment of the Weston stone for an official
examination by the Congress, Jefferson suggested that the members of a
scientific society would be better qualified to examine the stone,
"supposed meteoric," than those of the national legislature. He

"We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand
phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where
facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet
known to us, their verity needs proof proportioned to their difficulty.
A cautious mind will weigh the opposition of the phenomenon to
everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it
is supported, and the error and misconceptions to which even our senses
are liable. It may be very difficult to explain how the stone you
possess came into the position in which it was found. But is it easier
to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have
fallen? The actual fact however is the thing to be established."

The tenor and even the wording of this letter is quite similar as that
in Jefferson's December 1803 reply to Ellicott. It is possible that,
upon reflection, he dismissed the notion of the atmospheric generation
of stones and reverted to his original ambivalence about their fall. One
other point is relevant. At the time of the Weston fall, the New England
states were in an uproar about the economic effects of the
Jeffersonian-sponsored Embargo Act of November 1806, and there was even
talk of secession. Jefferson was antagonistic to the New Englanders,
because they sought to circumvent the embargo by smuggling goods into
Canada *. It is therefore possible that soon after the fall and before
the American Philosophical Society in March 1808 heard Silliman's report
and accepted his memoir for publication, Jefferson, in a fit of temper,
made the remark. But scholars have not yet located the source, so that
at this time it must remain conjectural.

* Hearken, Dean :-) !

Good Night,

Received on Mon 15 Oct 2001 06:33:32 PM PDT

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