Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on the creationists at the Meteorite Festival

I've been chatting with some of the good people of Haviland, they of the giant meteorites, about what's going on down there. What's the deal with the meteorites, and why did they invite creationists to come and do a lecture about them?

While I still have people I want to chat with, and I'm not sure I fully appreciate the full breadth of the situation (there are complex issues in the history of science and religion that I'm sorting out), I think I've basically got the situation in Haviland mapped out.

The major phenomenon in Haviland is Barclay College, a Quaker Bible college. This is where I'm fuzzy on relevant history, but I'm hoping a professor in England can help sort that out. I always thought of Quakers as pretty much pro-evolution and pro-science, not prone to young earth creationism, at least not since the early 19th century.

But perhaps this represents a different take on the Society of Friends, or perhaps conservative southwest Kansas is having an influence on the Quakers' fairly conciliatory attitude toward science. More on that later. The fact of the matter is that Haviland is a fairly creationist place. I chatted with Mayor Jeff Christensen, who said he didn't see how the meteorites could have been in the ground for thousands of years, since he thinks the earth can't be more than 8,000 years old. And I mentioned that Marlene Lofgren was familiar enough with the Creation Research Society to invite them to join the festival. That's the setting.

At least, half of it. The other half began with the discovery of the Brenham meteorite in the late 1800s and a 1931 recovery of a meteorite in nearby Beardsley, and subsequent discoveries of recent and ancient meteorites throughout the area. Greensburg, home of the world's largest hand-dug well also hosts a 1,000 pound piece of the Brenham meteorite excavated in the area.

While you and I may not have known it, meteorite hunting is a big hobby, and Dr. Don Stimpson, a biophysicist originally from the Chicago area, took it up in the '80s. His metal detector took him on vacations to Trenton, Wisconsin to hunt meteorites, and later to the Haviland area. When Ellis Peck, author of Space Rocks and Buffalo Grass, sold the farm where the Brenham meteorite was found, Stimpson bought the land. He worked for 15 years at Barclay College and hunted meteorites in his spare time. It was his discovery of a number of large fragments that inspired Haviland's mayor to think big. A museum or a learning center focusing on meteorites might provide an economic base that the community could use to grow and expand other businesses.

That Stimpson accepts the age of the universe at 14 billion years, and that the meteorites may have lain underground for 20,000 years doesn't seem to bother Mayor Christensen. And that most of the town doesn't seem to accept the scientific evidence behind the work he's doing doesn't seem to bug Stimpson. In my conversation with Dr. Stimpson, he showed a true love of science. For Christensen, the issue first and foremost is the growth and success of his town. For Stimpson, the idea of a competition with Greensburg is "overplayed."

Both men seemed more interested in getting along, a necessary trait for people living in a town of 612 people. Stimpson says "I like all of the sciences," and he has plans to display his many interests at the Meteorite festival. He'll talk about his meteorites, and doesn't plan to soft-pedal the issue of their age. He'll also have his metal detector, to talk with young people about the science behind it. And to help illustrate what he calls "the smallest meteorites," he'll have a bubble chamber to show the tracks of cosmic rays. If he manages to light the spark in a few minds, he'll be happy.

As for the creationists invited to speak at the festival, all he cared to say was that he hadn't been too involved in the planning of the event. "I tend to stay focused on my little part of it," he explained. He understands that not everyone believes what he does, and he doesn't seem too bothered by that.

I did get the feeling that he enjoyed a conversation with a kindred spirit, so anyone planning to attend the festival this weekend should be sure to stop by and chat with him. He can tell you about the researcher who will be coming out to search the impact crater with ground penetrating radar, a possible prelude to a renaissance of scientific study of the Brenham meteorite. And you can talk with him about his hope for a meteorite museum in the community to honor the heritage he's so carefully uncovered over the years.

Jeff Christensen's interest in the festival is different. As far as he's concerned, Marlene Lofgren is just "a good Christian woman" who wanted to see that "both sides of the story were presented," and he clearly is inclined to prefer her side. While Stimpson is excited by the prospect of bringing scientists in to study the meteorites, Christensen is more excited about seeing whether enough tourists show an interest in the festival to justify the construction of a meteorite learning center. He envisions school groups and tourists making Haviland a destination, and serving the needs of those tourists could help the town sustain itself against the draw of Wichita and the coasts. Disagreements over the ages of the meteorites don't seem to bother him.

How a museum would handle the age issue isn't entirely clear. Reliable dating puts the entire class of pallasite meteorites at 4.2 to 4.5 billion years old, and their structure gives a glimpse into the early stages of the formation of planets. To ignore that science would be a disservice to the children and tourists, but it isn't clear that the community would be comfortable with such a display. I hope to talk with some more community members and explore their views on that and other topics.