On November 7, 1492, a meteorite the size of a boulder landed in a wheat field outside the town of Ensisheim, in north-eastern France. The falling space rock was deemed a wonder of God by the Holy Roman Emperor King Maximillian, and a piece of it was sent to the Vatican.
Clive Oppenheimer, the British volcanologist and professor at the University of Cambridge, recalls visiting the site of the meteorite impact.
"So many cultures across time, people have thought of heaven, and the gods being up there," Oppenheimer tells Inverse. "If something falls out of that heavenly vault, then it’s the gods intervening in human affairs."
Oppenheimer is a key figure in the new documentary, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, a film that explores the scientific and cultural significance of the meteorites that have rained down on our planet for as long as it has existed.
Scientists study meteorites because they are like jigsaw pieces, each telling us a little more about the larger story of how the Solar System formed and how life came to be on our planet. But throughout human history, people have also attributed a spiritual meaning to meteorites — a significance this film does not shy away from.
These space rocks, which rain down from the heavens above, may also help people understand our own, personal, origin story.
"[Meteorites] operate in social landscapes and they have a human significance way beyond their scientific importance."
"It’s a complex story because meteorites have such different meanings," Oppenheimer says. "It’s partly a question of pulling out the bigger themes, and one of them is origins."
Along with director Werner Herzog, Oppenheimer journeys across the world, from France to Australia and Antartica. He visits impact sites, where meteorites have crash-landed on the Earth's surface, and speaks with experts about what these space rocks tell us about life on our planet.
The film, which premieres November 13 on Apple TV, also explores the real-life threat that meteorites pose as space agencies like NASA keep a watchful eye on the skies.
Meteorites are the broken-off debris of asteroids. After they fall from their parent body, they float through space before crashing into Earth. These primitive space rocks are believed to be made from the same material that formed the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago. There is also a theory that these meteorites may have carried organic compounds and other key ingredients for life to flourish here on Earth.
In the film, Oppenheimer works to tease out some of these themes — the origin of the Solar System and the origin of our species — as well as meteors' cultural significance and the threat of a catastrophic impact to Earth. Ultimately, the film shows how these seemingly disparate worlds — science and cultural belief — connect and drive one another.
Oppenheimer's openness to these different theories stands in contrast to the film's director, Werner Herzog, who thinks it is unlikely that life traveled to Earth via meteorites. But Herzog does believe that the composition of meteorites serves as a clue to life existing outside the Solar System.
"We share the same chemistry with the universe, we share the same physics with the universe, and we share the same history with the universe," Herzog tells Inverse in an interview this week.
"So with trillions and trillions and trillions of stars out there, it's highly likely that somewhere there is some form of life."
The ideas of finding intelligent life beyond humanity and recreating how life formed on Earth tend to take the human imagination way beyond the scientific realm, as people struggle to attach meaning to their existence.
As a volcanologist, Oppenheimer notices a curious parallel in that sense between volcanos and meteorites. Both are connected to human culture — volcanoes often hold cultural significance for the communities that live around them, while the communities that have witnessed the fall of a meteorite also often attribute symbolism to the event.
"For me, that’s what’s fascinating about meteorites, their social phenomenon, they operate in social landscapes and they have a human significance way beyond their scientific importance," he says.
The film draws on examples from Western Australia, where a meteorite has left a large, well-preserved impact site known as the Wolfe Creek Crater. There, the indigenous community that lives around the crater has their own story of how the crater formed. Another example is the black stone placed inside a corner of the Kaaba, where Muslims perform annual pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Some speculate that the stone is a fallen meteorite, although this is disputed.
"You often see people marveling at them," Oppenheimer says. "They’re such exotic rocks, I think there is a sense of wonder that we have about them."
Beyond cultural symbolism, meteorites also hold significance to the scientists that study them down on Earth. These relatively pristine signals from space are key to understanding the history of the cosmos.
While journeying through Antartica as part of the film, Oppenheimer met with scientists on the hunt for meteorites that have fallen over thousands of years on glaciers. In the cold, he wondered why they were so driven to find all the meteorites they could.
"They’ve found thousands, why do they need more?" Oppenheimer recalls asking himself. "It's because they’re looking for something they’ve never found before to unlock something about a time before the Solar System, or tell us about how the Earth formed as a planet," he says.
More than 50,000 meteorites have been found on Earth, and yet scientists are still learning more about our planet and the wider cosmos with each new piece discovered.
"A lot of this work is done on a microscopic scale, and yet from that deducing some of the biggest scale and deepest time secrets of the Solar System," Oppenheimer says.
- Read Inverse's full interview with Herzog where he discusses Star Wars, Rick and Morty, and the possible threat of asteroids to life on Earth.
- Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds is now streaming on Apple TV+