The annals of death certificates include many unusual causes of death, such as impaled by golf club, overuse of spray deodorant, exploding lava lamp, hit too hard by tennis ball and the subject of probability comparisons – struck by lightning. One cause that has never been listed is “Killed by meteor” … until now. Long-hidden state documents were translated recently and they describe the death of a man stuck by a meteorite in 1888 in – no, not Siberia, but thanks for playing – Iraq.
“To the best of our knowledge, we show the first proof of an event ever that a meteorite hit and killed a man and left paralyzed another on August 22, 1888 in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, based on three manuscripts written in Ottoman Turkish that were extracted from the General Directorate of State Archives of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey.”
The journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science published the findings of Ozan Unsalan, scientist from Ege University in Turkey, Altay Bayatli, history professor at Trakya University in Turkey, and Peter Jenniskens, astronomer and meteor showers expert at NASA Ames Research Center. They came from three letters hidden in Ottoman empire papers in Turkey’s state archives that were written in the Ottoman Turkish language, a complicated and hard-to-decipher combination of Arabic and Persian that was mainly used by upper class Turks.
For example, the first letter, dated September 13, 1888, was to the government of Sultan Abdulhamit II from the governor of Sulaymaniyah. He told the leader of witnesses reporting a fireball and many meteorites hitting a village in what is now Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The letter stated that a meteorite killed on male villager, hit and paralyzed another, and – what the sultan was really concerned about because of the tax implications – destroyed crops.
Proving that politicians haven’t changed, the governor’s second letter asked the sultan what he should do and sent a piece of the meteorite as evidence with the third letter. Unfortunately, the researchers have yet to find the meteorite chunk nor what the sultan advised his wishy-washy, can’t-make-his-own-meteorite-decision governor to do. However, they believe that the letters, coming from one leader to his superior, are sufficient proof that they’re legitimate, which means this is the first and only record of a human being killed by a meteorite.
Wait a minute, the statistical side of your brain shouts. Of all the meteorites falling on all the towns in all the world in all of history, this is the only one to fall on a human? Highly likely, says NASA, which maintains a fireball database showing at least 822 big meteorites entering the atmosphere just since 1988 and none hitting a person. Yes, says history, which shows only one person ever reported to be hit by a meteorite — Ann Hodges, who was asleep on her couch in Oak Grove, Alabama, on November 30, 1954, when the Sylacauga meteorite (now called the Hodges meteorite for obvious reasons) crashed through the roof and seriously injured her hip. napping on her couch in 1954 when the rock fell through her roof and hit her hip. Hodges survived, as did the meteorite, which is now in the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Wait a minute, your gambling side joins in. With all of those space rocks NASA tracks, what are the odds of anyone (especially you) being hit by one? Tulane University environmental sciences professor Stephen A. Nelson calculated the odds of getting killed by a meteorite and determined them to be about 1 in 250,000. For comparison purposes, your odds of being killed by another human are 1 in 185, by a tornado – 1 in 60,000), in a flood – 1 in 27,000, and in an airplane crash (when they were still flying) — 1 in 30,000. Place your bets now.
It would be nice to have the name of the guy on a death certificate so he could be immortalized, or the chunk that killed him so it could be named after him, but the letters and confirmation by the researchers will have to do.
One in 250,000. Just to be safe, when the coronavirus lockdown is over, you may want to wear a hard hat with your mask.