Sometime between the second and third week of November, if you go outside late at night and look in a clear sky towards the constellation Leo, you will see something marvelous. That something is the Leonid meteor shower, and the sight of fireballs streaking across the sky every three or four minutes evokes a sense of wonder and astonishment and even a bit of smallness in the observer. Writer Christopher Cokinos immersed himself in the history and science of meteors over several years, and the result is The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars.
Cokinos’ story is both scientific and personal; his research corresponded with a turbulent time in his life (he was going through a divorce), and he repeatedly draws correlations between the two. With any other subject, this might be a fatal flaw for a book, but in The Fallen Sky, it works, because many of those who followed the same quest over the years had their own personal demons. One of the first is a name not commonly associated with meteors—the arctic explorer Robert Peary, who, Coskinos discovers, comes across as more of a huckster than a scientist.
In fact, hucksterism seems to run as an undercurrent throughout the lives of many of those who studied meteors. The greatest example is Harvey Nininger, a self-taught scientist and meteorite collector, who pursued them with an Ahab-like zeal for most of his 99 years, often embroiled in controversy. Coskinos’ personal story interweaves with his research; he goes to the spot where Peary found the Greenland meteorite; he scours the Midwest plains and the Arizona desert, following in the steps of Nininger; he travels to the Australian outback, where startling discoveries are being made about ancient falls; and finally, he journeys to Antarctica, where scientists are gathering meteorites in search of the earliest life on Earth. Along the way, his marriage falls apart, and in the end he falls victim to a common ailment among those who explore the great white south—depression.
Like many of the people he writes about, Coskinos is obsessed with his subject, and the result is a book that, like meteors themselves, provides flashes of illumination and glimpses into the darkness. The Fallen Sky is a dense but fascinating book, and well worth your time.
James Neal Webb has seen more than his share of late night skies.