"I just got a couple envelopes in the mail today," said Alan Rubin on Friday.
As a researcher in UCLA's Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences - and now, as associate curator, one of the two men who sifted through thousands of space rocks to put together the university's new meteorite gallery - Rubin possesses one of L.A.'s weirder inboxes.
"People have sent me paper, pottery shards, twigs, railroad ties," he said. "I even once received a zip lock bag containing a clear gelatinous substance. I wouldn't open that one."
He hardly needs to. Less than 20 seconds is all it takes the researcher to rule out most of those would-be donations to science ("meteorwrongs," he calls them). At last, though, a few such pieces, like a slice of obsidian volcanic glass, a branch of petrified wood, and thankfully not a gelatinous item in sight, are finally getting their day in the sun, albeit as object lessons among a varied assortment of the genuine articles.
The gallery - free and open to the public as of Friday - sits on the third floor of the geology building, in room 3697, where it currently displays about 100 items out of the school's collection of almost 3000 samples, including Martian basalt, a black-veined piece of hoary lunar debris, a section dedicated to things that fell out of the sky over California, and a shelf of backlit pallasite slivers, a rare kind of meteorite in which jewel-like silicates are studded through an iron web. There is also one specimen available for visitors to fondle, a dense, 4.5 billion year old, 350 lbs. piece of interstellar iron that crash landed outside Flagstaff, Arizona about 50,000 years ago. UCLA owns the largest collection of this kind in the Golden State, and the 5th largest in the U.S. Rubin said its gallery, via its wall didactics and accompanying website, is also one of the most scientifically geared. Many of the objects here have been studied in detail by UCLA scientists.
"You do it because you love meteorites and want to preserve them," said John Wasson. The gallery's curator and a professor of geochemistry and chemistry at UCLA, Wasson exudes a bearded gravitas with pronouncements like "This one is really interesting for people who've thought a little about iron meteorites." (That big rock available for manhandling? Wasson published five papers on it.)
"Each has its own story to tell. The biggest story they have to tell scientists is how the planets were formed," Wasson explained, gesturing towards a display case filled with chondrites, irregular metallic chunks of extraterrestrial effluvia birthed by the primordial gas and dust clouds that formed our solar system. "They're older than earth itself."
That's just one reason why Rubin believes analyzing these intergalactic emissaries is one of the coolest jobs on the planet. While astronomers sit and gaze at the stars, "I can hold pieces of my beloved celestial objects in my hands," he said.
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