[This article originally appeared in print as "Touching the Untouchable."]
There is something special about touch. It is the truth teller that proves the other senses: A bench bearing a “wet paint” sign is not truly wet until we have tapped it with a probing finger. Conversely, an air of unreality hangs over anything we cannot touch. A scientist studying the geology of distant planets and long-ago times, then, seems condemned to live in a perpetual bubble of abstraction.
A conversation with Carl Agee quickly sets me straight. His title is director of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico, but he might be better described as a man who touches the untouchable.
Agee daily re-creates conditions deep inside Earth, explores geologic events from billions of years ago and probes the chemical secrets of other planets. Recently, he made headlines with his study of a triangular, 11-ounce rock nicknamed Black Beauty.
“At first no one knew what it was exactly,” Agee says. “It just looked so different from anything I had ever seen.” His laboratory analysis, published earlier this year in the journal Science, proved it is actually a meteorite that originated on Mars and, intriguingly, comes from a location that was abundant with water.
Black Beauty offers a snapshot of a time when Mars was much more Earth-like. It also complements the surveys under way on the Red Planet by NASA’s Curiosity rover. But while that $2 billion robot was creeping across the landscape, laboriously performing its onboard tests and radioing hints about Mars’ geology back to Earth, Agee unleashed the full power of his lab’s instrumentation on Black Beauty.
And holding a piece of the Red Planet right there in his hand.