Friday, 6 August 2010

Pennies from heaven

I realise it was only last week I wrote about the awkward relationship between the commercial and academic geological worlds but another article - this time about meteorites, in New Scientist - caught my attention today. It centres around the Gebel Kamil crater in Egypt, found last year by some Italian scientists but also by others - to the dismay of the research team. Now, of course my inclination is going to be to defend attacks on open-market trading in geological material. I'm a fossil dealer. However, I did a post-grad course in Museum Studies, and worked in museums for a while, too. I understand where the academics are coming from to a degree and I do try to keep a balanced view. Honest.

The main thrust of my argument last week was the enormous provision of material from the commercial sector and how it would be detrimental to science to cut that off. This stands for meteorites as well. I have three or four friends who are meteorite hunters - that's what they do for a living. Anyone wishing to study the material they find can do so easily enough - buying a few small pieces will be far, far cheaper than going out to collect their own samples. The New Scientist article suggests at one point that material in the hands of commercial collectors is forever lost to science. I think that's both partially untrue and potentially damaging. Most collectors I know will happily make their stuff available for study on request. I know that someone has to know it's there in the first place, though, and I can see that as a problem. Lots of collections are offered to museums eventually, but that doesn't solve the issue. Again, pro-actively fostering relationships between collectors and the academic establishment can only be of benefit.

Coming back to the Gebel Kamil site - to me the piece misses a number of points. The Italian team's lost bottle? Who is to say they were the first people there? That seems a remarkable claim. Secondly, why should science have automatic rights to all the material? It's fair to say a better estimate of total fall weight can be attempted with more of the meteorite in situ, but who knows how much of it has been collected in the 5000 years since it fell? Ultimately, what has happened is that the scientific community has found the site of a meteorite fall and given it an official name. It will undertake a full analysis of the rocks and crater and we will learn a bit more about meteorites. This is still happening, commercial collecting or not. It is of no real use to the researchers to possess all of the meteorite, but I'd argue it's of some value to science as a whole to have the background interest in the subject raised by the commercial market.

The use of UNESCO as a safeguard for specimens and sites of vital importance to science could be more effective if properly applied and enforced, but there aren't many instances where this is the case. As an example, China have a blanket ban on the export of vertebrate fossil material. This seemed brought in essentially to protect their feathered dinosaur stuff - and rightly so. Very important palaeontological specimens that academics should be able to access. It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut, though. Also banned for export are two types of fossil fish, Jianghanichthys and Lycoptera, that had provided a steady income stream for very poor parts of China. They are of no scientific interest. Australia is pretty much the only place where customs will take an interest if you go through the border with a Chinese fossil fish. The approach mentioned towards the end of the New Scientist piece is a good one, I think, but essentially is simply exploiting the existing situation. Academic bodies sponsoring local collectors to provide material for them instead of buying from dealers. But - doesn't that just make these sponsored local collectors... meteorite dealers?

Ahhh. I'll write about something else next time, I promise.

No comments: