Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Meteorites, Ice, and Antarctica: A Personal Account

by William Cassidy

(Cambridge University Press, $25.00, 341 pages, August 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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At the thirty-sixth annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society in Davos, Switzerland, in late August 1973, William Cassidy had the kind of moment that every scientist hopes for and few experience, a "Eureka!" insight that changed the course of his career and his life. He had barely skimmed the abstract of the talk he had gone to hear, and he didn't know the authors, Makoto and Masako Shima, a Japanese husband-and-wife team of chemists; but one word of the title piqued his interest -- "Antarctica."

The husband described the analysis of four stony meteorites found lying on the ice of the Yamato Mountains within a 5x10 kilometer area, about the size of Cassidy's home city, Pittsburgh, PA, where he was Professor of Geology and Planetary Science at the university that bore the city's name. Cassidy knew that Pittsburgh would experience a meteorite fall on the average of once in about three thousand years, so he naturally assumed the four space rocks were all fragments of the same incoming body.

About halfway through the talk, he realized he was wrong. As the abstract had made clear, each of the four meteorites was of a different type. "That is when the light bulb went on over my head," he writes in Meteorites, Ice, and Antarctica: A Personal Account. Something was concentrating meteorites on the ice in Antarctica, but he "could think of no mechanism that would concentrate meteorites, much less one that would be unique to Antarctica."

After the talk, Cassidy talked to Dr. Shima, who told him that the glaciologists had in fact found nine meteorites, "and superficial examination suggested they were all different." Half an hour later, Cassidy began writing a research proposal in his head. The National Science Foundation willing, he would go to Antarctica and seek concentrations of meteorites.

That was the genesis of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program, though the proposal was turned down twice before a resubmission, citing the discovery of an astonishing 663 meteorites by the Japanese in the Austral summer of 1974-75, was funded for 1976-77. The project continues today, though Cassidy, now Professor Emeritus, is no longer principal investigator.

ANSMET and its discoveries -- described in great detail that some readers will relish but most will choose to skim or read selectively -- lie at the heart of Meteorites, Ice, and Antarctica. Whatever their individual approaches to the book, all readers will learn how ANSMET has enriched meteorite science and how the study of its roughly thirty thousand samples -- mostly from asteroids but some rare rocks from Mars and pieces of unexplored portions of the Moon -- have shed light not only on the 4.5 billion-year history of the bodies from which they came, but also on that of Earth and the entire Solar System.

Throughout the book, Cassidy conveys the unique satisfactions and struggles of a life in research and teaching. His comfortable prose, with occasional flashes of humor and digressions into personal stories of life in the Antarctic, make this book a one-to-one visit with a professor whose enthusiasm for his subject has never flagged over a long career.

Cassidy ends the book with thoughts of ANSMET research that might have been and still may be, plus his speculations about the most provocative open questions in meteoritics, glaciology, and planetary science. In the tradition of great science teachers, he deliberately leaves loose ends. That is his invitation and challenge to readers. Those who accept it will respond by revisiting the parts of this rich reminiscence that they skipped the first time through.

Children's science author and Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz's books include one about Meteorite ALH84001, ANSMET's most famous find.