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June 2003

The Seven Deadly Sins (And Why We Love Them)

This classic roundup appeared in the June 2003 issue of BACKPACKER
seven deadly sins"The Seven Deadly Sins" from the June 2003 issue of Backpacker.

By Mary Roach

When I was 9, I fell for a very old rock. My dad had taken me to the local natural history museum and spun me a tale about a meteorite as old as the universe. As I gaze at the pockmarked lump in an old glass case and try to wrap my mind around the idea of four and a half billion years. In my scrappy, science-besotted way, I became obsessed with space rocks. But unlike the dinosaur fixation and the crush on Jacques Cousteau, the meteorite obsession did not fade. Since then I have coveted a space rock–and been too cheap to buy one.

There is one way to nab a free meteorite, and some years ago I found myself in a position to do so. I was in Antarctica, working on an article about the Antarctic Search for Meteorites. If you see a rock sitting on the ice in the middle of Antarctica, you can be pretty sure it dropped from space; this is why geologists go there to hunt for them. The Barbados Search for Meteorites would be cheaper and more pleasant but ultimately not very fruitful. Every year, hundreds of meteorites are found on the ice and loaned out to geologists for study. I figured one less wouldn’t matter.

I arrived by Twin Otter on a sunny night in December. Ralph Harvey, the program’s affable director, was cooking a batch of General Ralph’s Chicken (secret ingredient: Tang) and welcomed me inside his cluttered tent. When the rest of the team had departed, Ralph became quiet. "it’s time I give you my No Souvenirs speech," he said. Apparently he could see through layers of fleece and Capilene to the greed in my soul. Ralph talked about the importance of meteorites, about their role in science’s understanding of the formation of the universe, and about the code of honor that exists among the scientists whose jobs put them in a position to pocket really nifty artifacts. "You just don’t do it." I nodded solemnly: Of course, you don’t.

But maybe I do.

Over the next few days, driving my Ski-Doo across the ice with the rest of the team, I pondered my situation. I like Ralph, and I wanted to be good. I wanted to behave like a moral person. But it was possible that even more than that, I wanted a space rock.

And I knew where the meteorites were stored–in a pink sled behind Ralph’s tent. All I’d have to do is sneak out there one night and pocket one. There were two drawbacks to this plan. First, there is no cover of darkness in Antarctica in December. Second, all the meteorites were logged and labeled, so the theft–and thief–would be obvious. No, if I was going to swipe one, I’d have to find it myself.

So late one afternoon, I went out for a walk alone. I told myself that if I happened to find one, it would be fate’s way of telling me I was meant to have a meteorite. Then I’d do it. I’d bend down an palm it (no mean feat in three layers of mittens.)

I walked and saw nothing, just the blue of the ice, rising and dipping like some vast frozen sea. After 5 minutes–partly because of the cold, partly because of the guilt–I turned back. I did not feel disappointed. I felt relieved. It was like I’d been walking around with rocks in my pocket.

Apparently drawn to relics, Mary Roach is the author of Stiff, an investigation of the strange lives of human cadavers.

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