Why it's hard to believe a meteorite killed Tamil Nadu man

Most science journals have not reported any human death caused by a rarest of rare celestial occurrence.

 |  3-minute read |   08-02-2016
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If the statement issued by the government of Tamil Nadu is true, then the death of the bus driver Kamaraj in Natrampalli could be the first confirmed recorded death of a human being caused by a meteorite. A meteorite causing the death of a human being is so rare - that barring one possible instance (and that too in India), it has never been confirmed.

The National History Museum, London, clearly says: "There have been no recorded deaths due to a meteorite fall." Even the massive Chelyabinsk meteorite which led to nearly 1,500 injuries in Russia did cause result in fatalities.

However, Harvard University's International Comet Quarterly suggests the possibility of one earlier death due to a meteorite. It quotes three meteorite impacts in India during the last two centuries - Mayurbhanj in Orissa (2003), Mhow (1827), and Oriang, Malwate (1825). While referring to Oriang, the magazine says: "Man killed, Woman injured in meteorite fall [considered 'possible']." This is referred to as a possibility, but has never been confirmed.

Most science journals and magazines have however not reported any human death caused by a meteorite.

Prior to this incident, the death of a dog by a meteorite was recorded in Egypt in 1911. The Nakhla Martian meteorite reportedly hit a dog, and local stories say that the dog vaporised immediately. The incident was witnessed by a farmer.

NASA says "The meteorites are very real, so there's no reason to doubt the dog story." Nakhla was the area where the meteorite struck, and it originated from Mars - hence the name Nakhla Martian Meteorite.

In another incident, a boy was hit in Uganda (1992) when he was struck on his head by a small specimen of the Mbale meteorite.

NASA reports 48 impacts of the shower and measurements of short-lived radionuclide data, while the Dutch Meteor Society has photographs of the specimens and the boy. No fatalities were reported.

Two huge meteorite impacts have been reported in Russia. One of the biggest meteorite impacts was the Tunguska event (Siberia) in 1908, which impacted 2,000sq of and destroyed nearly 80 million trees, measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale. Since it was a remote location with little human habitation, no fatalities were recorded.

The Chelyabinsk meteorite in February 2013 caused 1,491 injuries (including 311 children), and two people were hospitalised in a serious condition. The light flash caused by the meteor resulted in eye pain and temporary blindness among many, but no one died because of the event.

As many science journals and magazines have reported, chances of a human being killed by a meteorite impact are rare.

Chron termed it as an "ultimate low-probability, high-risk event." The magazine WIRED says that odds of getting killed by a meteorite are roughly one in 250,000.

In this light, the death of bus driver Kamaraj in Natrampalli could be a rarest of rare celestial occurrence.

Writer

Bajinder Pal Singh Bajinder Pal Singh

He is a journalist based in Thailand, who specialises in south and southeast Asia. His interests include science, environment and education, and their interface with media.

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