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     Volume 5 Issue 108 | August 18, 2006 |

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Mustafa Zaman

It happened right in front of Jorina Begum. She was standing at the porch of her hut looking westward. According to her own word -- she first heard a strong hissing sound and then saw a dark black object swiftly coming from the south-western sky and landing on the southern patch of land adjacent to her house. It was 4:30 in the afternoon while this maiden of Shingpara of Thakurgaon saw a meteorite fall. However, Jorina was clueless about what had taken place. Right after she saw an object fall from the sky, she contacted the village headman. It was he who brought it to the notice of the local thana. By the time Rowshan Mostofa, the officer-in-charge of the Thakurgoan sadar thana, came to the spot and started taking pictures of the small hole that looked slightly bigger than a rat-hole using his mobile phone, everyone in the village scrambled to take a look.

The 2.5 kg meteorite that landed in Shingpara

As Shingpara is near the Indian border, many among the villagers thought that it was a mortar shell thrown by the Indian border guard BSF. When the BDR, the border guard of Bangladesh, came to the spot after the thana officers contacted them, they determined that it was not a shell but a meteorite that came from the outer space.

Mostofa, the head of the Thakugaon sadar thana, arranged for the 2.5 kg meteorite to be dug out from its three and a half feet cavity and taken to the thana. The next day the news of the meteorite falling from the sky spread. The incident became a source of speculation for locals. It turned out that not only were the local people ill informed, but the newsmen of local newspapers too had little knowledge of cosmic rocks. The news of the Thakurgaon meteorite got published in newspapers under misleading headlines. Meanwhile, among the public, various kinds of stories proliferated. Among the stories circulated in the locality a common one had to do with the claim to prescience. A number of the villagers claimed in the successive days after the fall of the meteorite that they had dreamt about it early on. Some of the local Hindus went as far as to see the incident as an ominous sign and went to the thana to worship the meteorite the next day of the fall. It was Mostafa who intervened. He used to be a student of science, so he could not allow superstition to get the upper hand. However, it was not until the arrival of the members of a science club called Anishandhitshu Chakra, which literally means a 'circle of inquisitive persons' from Dhaka that the villagers were exposed to proper information about the meteorite, which put a stop to all kinds of metaphysical claims.

“It was on February 2 that we formed a committee to probe the incident of the meteorite fall in Thakurgaon. And it was on February 3 that we arrived at Shingpara, Thakurgaon, to inspect the spot where it landed and take a look at the real object,” says MD Shahjahan Mridha Benu, a life time member of the Anishandhitshu Chakra (AC) and the joint secretary of the Bangladesh Astronomical Society (BAS). Benu was the chief co-ordinator and Dr AR Khan, a renowned astronomer of Bangladesh and the president of the BAS, was the convener of the five-member team.

Though the probe team was promptly formed and the team members were eager to bring the meteorite to Dhaka for testing, the dilly dallying on the part of the Information and Communication Technology ministry made them wait for the rock to be transported to Dhaka, which took one month and one day. The committee members of the AC knew that the more time the rock spent in the atmosphere of the earth the more chance it had to lose its original characteristics. However, government officials were oblivious of such facts. As the coordinator of the probe committee Benu testifies that he went door to door to expedite the process of bringing the meteorite to Dhaka. “I met ministers and top officials and implored them to look into the matter,” remembers Benu who along with his team was worried over the fact that the cosmogenic radioactivity would not be found if the tests were not done quickly.

“Cosmogenic radioactivity is cosmic ray induced radioactivity which is essential to determine the actual size of the meteorite before it entered the atmosphere of the earth,” clarifies Khan, who feels that since it was the very first experience for all in Bangladesh a lot of things did not go according to plan. However, the delay in bringing the rock to Dhaka not only annoyed the members of the probe team, it also made many other scientists belonging to astronomical associations abroad speculate about the distance of Shingpara from Dhaka.

“They were informed of the meteorite that had fallen at Shingpara and were eager to know the results of the tests done on the meteorite. Since it was taking a lot of time to bring it to Dhaka, some of the foreign scientists had the impression that it was a remote village where transportation means was Spartan; they kept asking how many days it takes on a bull-cart to reach this village. It never occurred to them that red tape could cost so much time,” says Benu.

Once it arrived in Dhaka it was kept in an air-tight jar at the Science Museum.

The meteorite had to be dug out from its three and a half feet deep cavity

While the transportation of the rock from Thakurgaon to Dhaka took a little more than a month, the formation of a national probe committee took three months. Dr Moyeen Khan, Minister for Information, Communication and Technology, was made the co-ordinator of the group and AR Khan was made its convener.

Several tests were run on the meteorite in the lab of the Atomic Energy Centre in Dhaka. “Our tests determined that it was an iron meteorite, which makes it a rare one. Only two percent of the meteorites that fall on the earth are made of iron. Its surface was high purity iron and the core was iron sulfide,” says AR Khan.

To run a complete chemical analysis on the rock, a two-member team took it to the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad, India on June 18. “I along with Niamul Islam Apu went to India on our own expense. We took with us eleven different samples from the rock that we collected by drilling its different stratus,” recalls Benu.

Although test results from Ahmedabad's PRL is yet to be officially disclosed, Benu, who with another of his Anishandhutsha Chakra team member, spent ten days in India, confirms that N Vandary, the scientist in charge of conducting the chemical tests at PRL, had detected radioactivity. However, Dr Khan feels that it is too early to say that they have as “the test result has not yet officially been disclosed.”

“Vandary is currently in China to look after the moon mission that the Chinese are contemplating; as soon as he comes back from China he will complete the tests and send us the results. We are expecting the results to arrive within two or three weeks,” says Khan.

Meanwhile, in a meeting on August 2, the national probe committee decided on a number of issues relating to mass awareness on meteorites. “We have decided to issue a stamp on the Thakurgaon meteorite; a memorial plaque will be put up on the spot where the meteorite fell, it will bear the facts about the rock alongside the name of the eye witness; and to build up mass awareness on the grassroots level we have decided on programmes involving schools as well as peoples' representatives,” says Benu who feels that the level of awareness on meteorites among Bangladeshis is negligible. “We need to do a lot of work to simply let the masses know that there are rocks that fall from the sky and it is through them that valuable information on the cosmic world and its beginning can be gathered,” says Benu.

“Our own solar system came into being 4.5 billion years ago, and the meteorites are the primordial matters that went to build the solar system. So, meteorites enhance our knowledge about our own solar system,” says Khan, who let us know that to raise awareness of the young people they have plans to produce a number of replicas of the Thakurgaon meteorite which would be put on public display.

Meteorites are cosmic matters that are penetrating the atmosphere of the earth on a regular basis. Most are small in size and are made of hard rock or iron and they catch fire as soon they enter the earth's atmosphere and wither away. Among the largest that had hit the earth landed in Tanguska, Russia and caused an explosion similar to an atomic bomb. With the Thakurgaon meteorite Khan and his team is of the opinion that the information that it might reveal to us will be of immense value. They have a plan to send it to Sweden for further testing. “This is a magnetic material and we will send it for magnetic analysis,” says Khan.

Both Khan and Benu lament the fact that after 1940 no record has been kept of the meteorites that landed in this region. It was during the British rule that records were kept of every meteorite that landed on this soil, the last being the one that fell on March 27, 1940.

Every meteorite is the property of the people of the earth, this is how Benu likes to think. He and his associates at AC consider each meteorite a capsule of information about the solar system, and feel that Bangladeshis should become more scientifically inclined and do whatever little they can in their own way to help fulfill the of humans' aspiration towards a greater understanding of the world that they are a part of.

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