Meteorites have had a good career in the movies; few screenwriters have been able to resist the drama inherent in a large rock hurtling through the Earth's atmosphere. Astronomers and astrophysicists may laugh at Hollywood science, but in their hearts they probably know that Saturday matinees about these wicked big rocksare what drew their youthful attentions to the skies in the first place. The American Museum of Natural History's Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites has the drama of science, not Hollywood, but it's not one speck of primordial space dust less dramatic for that. What meteorites tell us about the origins of the Earth, our Sun, and the history of the solar system is a narrative laced up and down the line with the acute drama of nothingness and existence. The Hall reopened to the public last month after six months of renovation that resulted in a circular, solar system-style configuration for the gallery (along with a new scale model diorama of Arizona's "Meteor Crater" and an interactive media piece on meteorite hazards and impacts). It is stunningly arranged and lit to put the focus on one of the museum's most colossal artifacts: the 34-ton iron meteorite fragment Ahnighito. Not too surprisingly, Ahnighito is used to set the tone of scale. Meteorite fragments can be very big or very small, and there are samples of both here. In fact, nowhere in the world can such an extreme contrast of meteorite sizes be seen indoors; Ahnighito, the largest known fragment of the 200-ton "Cape York" meteorite that fell in Greenland thousands of years ago, is the largest meteorite on display in any museum. Ahnighito is joined by two of its sister fragments, "Woman" and "Dog", both of which have been hammered by primitive Inuit workers, who chipped off pieces to create tools,. The result is a sculptural, Rodin-like finish. The 4.5 billion-year-old Ahnighito is wonderful, but it's not the whole show. As usual with the museum, the accompanying wall text is excellent, and when not too scientific, especially easy to understand. Displays tell the story of the solar system, with the meteorites as the holders of the clues. Most enjoyable for those visitors without a strong scientific bent are the texts relating to the individual histories of certain meteorites. The Ensisheim meteorite, which fell on November 16, 1492, in France, is considered to be the earliest fall witnessed in the Western world. (Because its appearance was considered a good luck sign from God, many pieces of the Ensisheim were chipped off as sacred souvenirs). Locally, the Peekskill meteorite (fell: October 9, 1992) did a number on a Chevy Malibu, but no human damage. The curators assure us in their text that there has never been a confirmed case of death by meteorite — although, on December 13, 1795, a Yorkshire farmhand took a blow to his dignity after being splattered with mud by a fragment from the insidious Wold Cottage meteorite. Ah well.
Info: Where: American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street When: Ongoing. Museum hours are: daily, 10am-5:45pm How much: (Suggested admission) $12 adults; $9 students and seniors; $7 children (age 2-12) For more info: (212) 769-5100; www.amnh.org — Joe Lugara