The fallen sky: an intimate history of shooting stars by Christopher Cokinos. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, New York, 2009. No. of pages: 517. Price: US$27-95. ISBN 978-1- 58542-720-8 (hardback).
Article first published online: 21 JUN 2011
Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Special Issue: The Indian Precambrian: correlation and connections
Volume 47, Issue 2-3, page 354, March-June 2012
How to Cite
Donovan, S. K. (2012), The fallen sky: an intimate history of shooting stars by Christopher Cokinos. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, New York, 2009. No. of pages: 517. Price: US$27-95. ISBN 978-1- 58542-720-8 (hardback). Geol. J., 47: 354. doi: 10.1002/gj.1315
- Issue published online: 4 APR 2012
- Article first published online: 21 JUN 2011
- Manuscript Received: 16 MAY 2011
- Manuscript Accepted: 16 MAY 2011
The omens were good. On the dust jacket, amongst other pre-publication puffing-up of The Fallen Sky, I was beguiled by a Pulitzer Prize winning author who ‘… always wanted to read a first-class book about meteorites. Christopher Cokinos has finally written that book.’ High praise, so why didn't I enjoy reading it?
As a professional geologist, perhaps I already knew too much? Well, no, what I knew about meteorites before I read The Fallen Sky could have been written on the head of a pin with a pneumatic drill. With some notable exceptions, such as ALH 84001, most of The Fallen Sky was new to me. Some of the science was obviously in need of at least a rewrite, such as the implication that olivine wasn't a terrestrial mineral (p. 65) and the discussion of the origin of terrestrial water that attributes it all to bolide impacts (p. 338) without a mention of volcanic out-gassing, but generally I found the arguments both held together and entertained.
My dislikes in The Fallen Sky really come under two distinct categories. I read this book to be educated. Cokinos has introduced me to some interesting parts of the globe, from Arctic Greenland to Antarctica. His historical discussions of scientists, collectors and collecting is peopled by a suite of wonderful characters, from the famous like Daniel Barringer, Robert Peary and Gene Shoemaker to the less well known. He introduced me to a plethora of technical terms for different types of meteorites which I happily struggled to keep in my head (a longer, more detailed glossary would have been greatly appreciated). Yet none of these are illustrated. There are no maps, no mug shots of the great and the good, and no photographs of different types of meteorites. (I was helped with the latter, fortuitously, by the February 2011 issue of Elements magazine, a thematic issue on cosmochemistry, which I bumped into in the library.) I find this inexplicable, particularly as Cokinos was obviously busy with his camera whenever he visited a site or museum. The only illustration is the photograph of a huge meteorite on the dust jacket, which inexplicably lacks a caption!
Secondly, there is too much of Christopher Cokinos in the book. He crops up all the time. He isn't a bad lad, but there is too much of him for comfort. He gives us too much information about Chris Cokinos. When he is describing his trips to the Polar regions, I agree that it is appropriate to give firsthand impressions and these form an important part of the text. Antarctica and the Arctic are inhospitable parts of the globe that few of us will ever see, so the travel guide approach intertwined with meteorite science and lore is appropriate. Yet there is too much of the author's private life in the book to endear him to me. I didn't read The Fallen Sky to find out about when or how Cokinos left his wife, met his new partner, changed jobs, made love (p. 307) and so on. Maybe I could be accused of being a dry-as-dust scientist, yet too often I found what Christopher did next an unwanted distraction. In truth, there are two books here that Cokinos has failed to separate and The Fallen Sky is poorer for the author's overly narcissistic approach.