Thursday, 19 August 2010

Start your own English school - no experience necessary

From the April 2010 EL Gazette

MANY TEFLERS have at some time suspected (or known for certain) that their school’s owners have little or no background knowledge of the subject, beyond an understanding of the money to be made. Now a company called offers all ‘business enthusiasts’ the opportunity to start their own English school in cyberspace for just US$250. The company promises that setting up an online EFL school requires ‘no setup, no hassle, and definitely no experience’. offer a complete English Website Package that lets you start your own online EFL operation for a one-off fee, which means you won’t have to pay any royalties. The fee includes one year’s free web hosting, search engine optimisation and other internet bells and whistles.

Details of lesson content are more vague. A ‘demo’ shows a dummy version of an online English school, which promises that you ‘can learn Business English, General English, Kids English, IELTS or TOEFL’. Students pay $15 an hour and up for English lessons.

The Gazette could only find one sample lesson, in which ‘we will learn how to express quantities’ to the tune of xylophone music in the background, and we learn from a rather unnatural conversation that ‘wholemeal flour is used to make bread’. To be fair to, their sample lesson is no worse that one you’d be expected to pay money for in many of London’s less reputable schools.

E4D - English for dogs

From the March 2010 EL Gazette

A dog brought in to the Royal Society for Prevention of Animals (RPSPCA) centre in Oldham near Manchester, England, has made good progress in a course of English lessons. Workers initially thought the dog, a male border collie named Cent, was deaf, because he didn’t respond to commands. But tests showed his hearing was good. Puzzled RSPCA workers consulted their records on Cent, and found that he had been brought to the RSPCA by a local Polish family who could no longer care for him. As one animal care assistant recalled, ‘It was only a few days later when it dawned on us that he must be used to hearing commands in Polish.’

A look at the internet provided Cent’s handlers with a list of Polish commands, and they went back to get help from the family that originally brought Cent in for help with Polish pronunciation.

Once Cent started responding to Polish commands, staff started teaching him to react to basic commands in English in a ‘reward-based’ programme. Within four months, Cent is now bilingual and ready to be found a home.

Oldham RSPCA recall they once took in a cat from an Asian family, ‘which had Asian owners and only responded to commands in their (unspecified) native tongue.’ (Although the Gazette is unaware of any cats giving much of a response to commands in any language.) See the September 2008 Gazette for gorillas arriving at a Valencia zoo who needed to be spoken to in English after they’d lived in zoos in France and Germany.

Why small countries do well at FCE?

From the February 2010 EL Gazette

LOOKING at the latest scores for Cambridge Esol First Certificate English (FCE) exam results, there are some striking trends. One is the handful of small countries that seem to do exceptionally well.

The small former Soviet state of Belarus (population 9 million) has a 95 per cent pass rate in FCE, and 27.9 per cent of Belarusian FCE students get an A grade. Little central American nation Costa Rica has a 100 pass rate in FCE, while modest-sized EU ‘accession’ state Slovenia has an 89 per cent FCE pass rate, and a 22.5 A grade score. 88 per cent of Serbia’s FCE candidates pass, with about the same proportion of A grades as Slovenia. Sweden – with about the same population as Belarus - has a 93 per cent FCE pass rate, and a similarly high A grade score. Bahrain, the smallest Gulf State, has a 90 per cent FCE pass rate, much higher than any other Middle Eastern country.

What factors result in these very high scores? By comparison, the pass rate for FCE in the UK is an unimpressive 65 per cent, probably the result of the tendency of some language schools to put students through exams long before they’re ready. Russia has a 79 per cent pass rate for FCE, but a much lower proportion of grade A passes, only eight per cent. Sweden’s score can’t just be attributed to its language’s closeness to English – neither Germany nor Holland, with languages closely related to English, do particularly well at FCE.

We asked Cambridge Esol’s media relations officer Stuart Giblin if there was anything in the statistical set that could account for these scores. He got back to the Gazette to say that the samples on which the high scores for FCE were based for Serbia, Slovenia, Costa Rica, Bahrain, Belarus and Sweden were ‘statistically insignificant’ – in other words, so few people were taking FCE in these countries, that we can’t make any meaningful comparisons with bigger countries where the pass rates and A-grade rates are based on much bigger cohorts of candidates.

But the Gazette has done some digging of its own. We may be completely wrong, but we think we’ve identified factors in the small six – Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden Costa Rica, Belarus, Bahrain – that could account for their high scores, with possible lessons for those running exam classes elsewhere.

One clue to Slovenia and Serbia’s exam success is the origins of these countries, both are former Yugoslav republics. Socialist Yugoslavia had an impressive reputation for education, and some of the better elements of that system seem to have stuck. Vincent Smidowicz of Sidmouth International School, a consultant to City and Guilds, told the Gazette ‘Serbia does have excellent educational and cultural standards; earlier this month was my first visit and I was very impressed.’

Belarus’ high FCE score may be down to a local peculiarity, the Belarus Testing Initiative, devised by the British Council’s Belarus office back in 1997, with the support of the country’s education ministry. The Testing Initiative overhauled the country’s then prevailing antiquated system of oral exams for school leavers, followed by university entry exams written by the individual universities, taken several months later. These were replaced with exams deliberately aimed at integrating Belarus more closely into Western European higher education, with exam papers developed by a Thames Valley University consultant. Could this mean that international exams devised in the UK, such as FCE, have become more familiar to Belarusian candidates?

Swedes generally do very well at English, and it seems that some Swedish state schools – unlike the school systems of most other Northern European countries – put their pupils through FCE. Several UK universities that take a lot of Swedish students. In recognition of the generally high level of education in that country, some UK universities will take Swedes –often as relatively short-term exchange students - into their first year of a undergraduate course with just a Swedish gymnasium diploma plus an FCE.

And Bahrain? The numerous guides for expatriates on living and working in Bahrain emphasise the importance of the lucrative one-to-one exam tutoring market, with particular surges in demand as the exams season approaches, and in the re-takes season once the results are out. Bahrainis, it seems, will pay for personal training to get them through EFL exams.

According to International House Costa Rica’s executive director Marcela Devine, Costa Rica has a tiny sample of people taking FCE – only about 50 candidates a year, mostly young adults - in its main test centre in the capital, San Juan. Ms Devine told the Gazette that the country’s FCE success ‘is entirely due to good candidate preparation… we offer a mock exam several months before the exam and use the results for organising exam preparation courses.’ UK language schools please note!

Bahrain English Language Teaching market

From the February 2010 EL Gazette

The island nation of Bahrain, the smallest Gulf State, has just over a million inhabitants. Various estimates put the proportion of expatriates in Bahrain at between a third and a half of the population. It’s also the only Gulf State with free education for all up to age 16, with English a mandatory school subject from an early age and also one of the nation’s two official languages, so there’s a big demand for expatriate EFL teachers, both in the mainstream state and private sector, and in the thriving international schools sector.

Most secondary school teachers in Bahraini secondary school system are expatriate nationals of other Arab countries. The English for the Future Project aims to improve the standard of teaching and learning in the region. In Bahrain, the focus of Teaching for the Future, delivered by British Council trainers, is on teacher training, methodology (including Clil) and introducing new technology into the classroom.

The numerous private schools – which teach most subjects in English –are popular with Bahrainis, and it is in this sector where most native-speaker expatriate teachers are found. By nationality, most expatriates in Bahrain are Indians, and a look at the CVs of many senior teachers in India reveals that they’ve worked in Bahrain. There’s a big market for home tutoring in Bahrain, with many expatriate Teflers earning a living in this way, with surges in demand as the exams season approaches.

Bahrain’s international schools – including several Indian and Pakistani-founded international schools - are world class, with the St Christopher’s International School among the very select few globally that gets its students into the world’s top ten universities. There are a lot of British nurseries and international schools on the British curriculum, and there’s also the Bahrain School, catering from kindergarten all the way through to IB, and run by the US Department of Defense. (See page 11 on Kazakhs studying in relatively close Bahrain, where international schools will take them with a lower Ielts score.)

Many private schools are aimed at Bahrain citizens, with a lot of evening classes after work. For better known private schools like Bell Centres or the British Council, teachers would need a PGCE or Diploma and experience. Expats don’t pay taxes, and their employer has a legal requirement to pay an end of contract ‘indemnity’ bonus, based on basic salary, starting at a basic 15 days salary per year worked. But expatriates can’t establish themselves as permanent legal residents in Bahrain.

There's been a proliferation of universities and polytechnics opening in Bahrain recently, with most courses in English medium, and catering to students from other Gulf countries. There’s a steady increase in Bahrainis who've studied abroad and who are returning to do postgrad courses in Bahrain.

Bahraini universities are establishing a reputation for scientific research, some hold patents on some important AIDS treatments. These universities all have big EAP operations, and many expat EFL teachers work there. Bahrain Polytechnic in particular employs a lot of native speakers.

More recent foundations include the Royal University For Women, and the ministry of health’s College Of Health Sciences, which has its own English department. Private sector universities include AMA International University, a branch of the Philippine-based university. New private universities are proliferating at great speed, and concerns about quality assurance have led to the establishment of a national body to oversee this sector. This has already warned 10 private universities to make improvements or face closure.

As in many Arab countries, the spectre of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is of concern. Most of the country’s private sector jobs, which demand English, are held by expatriates. The unemployed, as well as those Bahrainis working in lower paid jobs, are perceived as held back by their English.

A recent solution is the government's Career Progression Programme, (CPP) which involves the Bell Bahrain training centre in partnership with the Expert Group, training providers to the oil and gas industries. The CPP, administered by the government’s Labour Fund, aims in the long term to reduce Bahrain’s dependence on an expatriate workforce.

Bell Centres started its first CPP English classes for 70 students in July 2009. Sami Adnan Sulaiman, Bell Bahrain’s centre manager, said the courses were designed so that students could ‘structure their learning around their jobs.’ There are three other providers besides Bell/Expert Group delivering EFL through the project. The ambitious CPP project has a target to deliver EFL training to 6,500 Bahrainis from the ‘mid-income local workforce’ in the next three and a half years. A big incentive ensuring that students succeed at CPP is the salary increase of at least of 50 dinars a month (£81) they will get on completion of the course, which represents an monthly uplift of between a quarter and an eighth to some of the lower paid workers.

UK university student visa delays

From the February 2010 EL Gazette

UK IMMIGRATION minister Phil Woolas appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight programme defending his government’s immigration record. He noted that all students have to present themselves in person to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) or its ‘agents’ – private contractors who pass on visa applications to UKBA for scrutiny. The minister quoted a refusal rate for UK student visa applications from Pakistan that’s now risen to 42 per cent, evidence that his department was getting tough on immigration.

Mr Woolas mentioned that the visas system is now ‘much tougher, that’s why the universities complain to us.’ The Newsnight interview focused on ‘getting tough,’ rather than on facilitating the arrival of over 160,000 international higher education students into the UK every year, bringing in a total of £4 billion a year in student fees - 8 per cent of the higher education sector’s total income. Course fees of £10,000 a year are now ‘average’ in undergraduate science, and Imperial College in London seems to top the list of high international student fees, asking ‘up to’ £20,400 for one of its courses.

Higher education graduates are likely to go straight home afterwards, having contributed much to the economy. The debate in the UK is about ‘getting tough’, rather than ensuring the higher education sector continues to attract the high fee-paying students it needs to survive. The cost to universities of educating home (UK) and EU students is far higher than the £3,225 each student in these categories brings in annually - universities need to recruit international students to subsidise them.

But when the current university academic year started in October, universities found many of their international students had to start their courses late, or that these students lost their university places altogether, because of delays in getting Tier 4 (student) visas. London Student newspaper reported that at Queen Mary’s, part of the University of London, ‘about 25 students missed their chance to study here, because they did not get their visas in good time, despite having applied well in advance.’ The London School of Economics told the same paper that ‘some offer holders, especially from Pakistan, have had to defer to next year (academic year 2010-2011) and may conceivably be lost altogether.’

There’s an annual peak in Tier 4 applications in August for university courses starting in October. By October, the Guardian newspaper was reporting that universities had started filming lectures so visa delay-bound students could catch up on arrival. They had to finally close the door on these students in November.

What causes these disastrous visa delays? October saw the start of the first full academic year since The Tier 4 system for student visas came into full force in March 2009.. The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCisa) surveyed ‘affected students’ about their visa hassles. Their report, Tier 4: students’ experiences (applying from outside the UK) UKCisa identified ‘delays and backlogs’ resulting in ‘a significant numbers either arriving late for courses or not being able to arrive to all.’ Some initial difficulties with Tier 4 have been sorted out, but the problems remaining have the effect of discouraging students from applying for UK university.

The majority of students surveyed found visa applications relatively swift and hassle-free, with the application forms and guidance on websites relatively helpful, But a quarter of students surveyed had difficulties because their acceptance letters sent by universities don’t always fit UKBA’s - unclear – requirements. The Entry Clearance Officers (ECOs) who scrutinise applications ‘at times developed their own local interpretations of what was required,’ according to the UKCisa report, and ‘errors and obfuscation’ by ECOs and their commercial partners led to student visa applicants being ‘tripped up, put off… or even refused.’ .

UKBA’s commercial partners, such as Jerry’s in Pakistan, Worldbridge in Germany, and VSF Ltd in most of the world, came in for particular criticism. They seem to have very little knowledge of the new visa rules, according to the survey. One Bangladeshi student said the ‘behaviour of some staff at VFS is very rude and unprofessional.’

Other common problems were the hassle, time and expense of providing documents in translation and evidence of funds, and of students presenting themselves in person for biometric tests. One in ten students had to submit their visa application all over again, which meant travelling to re-submit their biometric data again too. Their fingerprints are unlikely to have changed in the meantime! Another student said the regulations for evidence of financial support changed three times during his application. The visa fee is £145, but many applicants said that having to provide all this evidence added at least an extra £200 to this.

Some students described getting ‘contradictory advice from the (UKBA) website and from consular staff,’ and a lack of advice services available by phone or email. Answers to email enquiries took up to five times as long as advertised. Family, friends and teachers proved to be a better source of advice to most students than UKBA website, with agents and university international offices proving more helpful than British consulates.

All this does obvious damage to the UK higher education sector’s reputation, when it’s becoming cheaper and easier to go instead to the other English speaking countries for a degree, or to continental Europe, where the English-medium university sector is booming. One student told the UKCisa survey that his parents had ‘forbidden’ himself and his siblings from studying in the UK, so disgusted were they with the visa application service.

Other countries that attract university students are getting tougher too, but their waiting times for visas are shrinking, not growing. In 2008, an applicant for a US student visa in Dubai would have to wait 56 days, now it’s down to three days. Strict though the application procedure for Australian student visas and the US F-1 student visa are, they’re an awful lot more straightforward than the UKBA’s rules. These rules – as Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in December – will shortly change again.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Meteor Man - from Fortean Times 265, August 2010

MATT SALUSBURY salutes Ernst Chladni, the self-taught polymath who confounded academic wisdom by turning to witness testimony and historical data in his quest to prove that meteors had an extraterrestrial origin

(This article is now on the Fortean Times website)

VERY EARLY in the morning of 12 August this year, the Perseid meteor shower will do its annual star turn. Once again, my girlfriend and I will be watching the cold, cloudy, light-polluted, 21st century London skies, hoping to catch sight of some blink-and-you-miss it fiery trails. The Perseids this year will be of a stronger than usual ‘storm intensity’, with several hundred meteors hitting the atmosphere every hour. Regrettably, the shower will peak around dawn – this and a Full Moon on the night will probably mean our view of the Perseids will be rubbish.

Nowadays we know what meteors are. But just over two hundred years ago, meteors vexed the great minds of Europe. “Meteor” means literally “something in the air,” and the prevailing explanation for them was that they were the result of an “accretion” of gases high in the atmosphere, that somehow congealed into solids.

Volcanoes were also believed to cause meteorites, either by throwing out stones that rained down, or by expelling plumes of “effluvia” that congealed into rock somewhere in the atmosphere, possibly aided by electricity. Others thought meteors were terrestrial stones dumped by hurricanes, or even that the “magnetic effluvia” of the Northern Lights caused their formation. With the arrival of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, scientists had an increasing tendency to conclude that meteors existed only in the superstitious minds of peasants who had misidentified stones struck by lightning.

The idea that meteorites were “cosmic bodies” falling from outer space was the least fashionable explanation. The meteorite mystery was solved mostly through the efforts of a man more interested in music and maths than cosmic astronomy. The father of meteorics (the study of meteorites) was an eccentric physicist called Ernst Chladni. His methods of investigation, and his lifestyle, were distinctly fortean. Like Charles Fort, Chladni spent way too much time in reference libraries. Like Fort, the evidence he amassed in support of his ideas on meteors came not form staring through telescopes or from analysing rocks, or from any expertise in his chosen subject, but from curiosity and through three weeks spent in a university library reading eyewitness reports.

Chladni’s evidence was as likely to come from passages from Homer and from that proto-fortean favourite The Gentleman’s Magazine as it was from scientific journals. And in formulating his conclusions, Chladni relied not on his considerable – although informal and self-taught – grounding in science, but his training as a lawyer, to help him tell “fact” from “fairy tales” when evaluating witness testimony.

The earliest guesses at the origin of meteorites were in fact some of the most accurate. The Roman naturalist Pliny accepted that stones occasionally fell from the sky, and recorded the fall of a meteor in Thrace as confirmation of a prediction made centuries earlier by the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras that a “stone from the sun” would one day fall. (1)

Aristotle conceived a model of an orderly universe with celestial bodies moving in fixed, orderly ways in otherwise empty space. In the Aristotelian universe, there were no messy bits of rock rattling around or “small bodies beyond the moon” that could get in the way of the celestial bodies in empty space. It was impossible for stones to fall from the sky, as apart from the celestial bodies, there was no matter out there to fall. Aristotle suggested instead that meteors were the tops of exploding volcanoes blown into the sky. His explanation wasn’t well received by his contemporaries, but as the Aristotelian universe later became the cornerstone of Christian and Islamic cosmology, the volcanic origin of meteors gained more authority.

Comets were allowed to move out “beyond the moon” after the sixteenth century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe discovered that the comets orbited much further out than Aristotle has allowed. Newton accommodated Tycho Brahe’s discoveries on comets, but otherwise seemed to confirm Aristotle’s idea that there could be no small bodies beyond the moon. He concluded that – with the possible exception of
vapours and effluvia from earth, and the “aether”– “to make way for the motion of the comets it’s necessary to empty the heavens of all matter.”

Dr William Whiston’s An account of a surprizing Meteor seen in the air, March the 6th, 1715 at night, and his “Conjectures for the solution of the foregoing phenomena” was relatively mainstream for the time – he felt that meteors resulted when “exhalations and effluvia from the earth travelling above the ‘vapours’ become heavier than air and coagulate into stones in the Northern parts,” but ferment into thunder and lightning in the South.

In fairness to the Age of Reason’s meteorite debunkers, an awful lot of superstition and folk tales fell from the sky. The large meteor that fell on Eisenstadt, Bavaria in 1492 was housed in the local church as an example of the “wrath of God,” while practically any stones that looked odd – from fossil shark’s teeth to prehistoric flint tools – were touted as “thunderstones” that had fallen during thunderstorms. The statue of the goddess Diana at Ephesus (probably carved from a meteorite - but see correction below) “fell from the sky,” as did the Lamean lion in the ten labours of Hercules (probably the fossil bones of a prehistoric mammal). The Council of Claremont in France, which proclaimed the First Crusade in 1095, was preceded by portents including an ominous shower of meteors.

To the secular minds of the Enlightenment, all this was a red rag to a bull. The new brand of science required expensive kit to measure natural phenomena, and observers trained to use this equipment. Peasants and other “unlettered observers” who reported stones falling from the sky didn’t know what they were talking about, their worthless testimony belonged in the bygone world of witch-hunts and old wives’ tales.

The 18th century was a time of exciting new discoveries. From the 1750s, scientists experimented with electricity. This exciting new science seemed to breathe new life into the atmospheric accretion model, with the electrical action of lightning in the upper atmosphere seen as somehow the key to the procreation of meteors. Mainstream science didn’t so much cling to ancient received wisdom, as get carried away trying to explain meteorites by linking them to sexiest new fields of scientific enquiry, gasses and electricity.

One contemporary scientist was Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, who in his earlier career with France’s Académie Royale des Sciences gained a reputation as a tenacious superstition-buster. He demolished contemporary claims about water dowsing, and claims about a boy who could see water through strata of earth and rock. Lavoisier was part of the team called in to evaluate Franz Anton Mesmer’s claims around “animal magnetism”, for which he found no evidence.

Lavoiser’s report on “a stone which it is claimed fell from the sky during a storm” was the first known chemical analysis of a piece of a meteorite, which fell in 1768 in Luce, France. He read his report to the Academy the following year, and it was written up in 1772. (2) Lavoisier, the junior partner in the committee that authored the report, found iron pyrites in the stone, and concluded that “thunder struck preferentially on pyritiferous rock,” which peasants had misidentified. He speculated that the iron pyrites in the rock somehow attracted lighting. On the subject of meteors, he added that "true physicists" had always been sceptical.

Antoine Lavoisier's report on "a stone which it is claimed fell from the sky during a storm"
An electrical explanation for meteors has been tentatively suggested by the Academy’s Jean Baptiste Le Roy the previous year, in his report to an enquiry triggered by a fireball “more intense that the sun” streaking over Sussex and reaching an apparently impossibly high speed exploding over Melun, France.

Academy president G. de Fouchy added a note to the Academy proceedings for 1772, which pointed out that subsequently three identical stones had been recovered from different sites in the area around the Luce fall, and that further study was needed. In fairness to the vulcanist, hurricanist, atmospheric accretionist and lightningist tendencies of this era, it’s noticeable that they usually concluded with words to the effect of “requires further study.”

By 1789 a much more influential Lavoisier had published his paradigm-shattering Elements of Chemistry, which caused a steady stream of defections from the prevailing scientific model of “phlogiston” – a substance with a negative weight that was added during combustion – and replacing this with newly discovered gasses such as hydrogen and oxygen. Just as scientists were getting carried away with electricity, so Lavoisier was now changing his mind about meteors, seeking explanations for them in the exciting new world of gasses. He was now favouring an idea he had earlier rejected, that dust containing metals rose to inflammable layers of the upper atmosphere where it could be ignited by electricity to form meteors.

But when a rain of meteors fell on July 24 1790 in Barbotan, near the French town of Agen, the preferred approach of the scientific establishment was denial. Sworn affidavits by 300 witnesses attesting to the fall were simply ignored. Professor Nicolas Baudin, a local physicist out for a stroll, did see a meteor fall, but when he wrote this up five years later, his editors added their comment on Baudin’s and other such reports – “we do not place any faith in any of them.”

Such reactions were understandable given the political context: France in 1790 was gripped by revolution, and several key events in the French revolution were the result of mass panics or rumours of imaginary plots that seized the crowd in Paris. Revolutionaries would have been reluctant in this atmosphere to encourage any apparent superstitious mass hysteria about stones raining from the sky. (3)

Enter Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni. He was born in 1756 in the German city of Wittenberg, descended from Protestants who had fled persecution in Hungary. Although fascinated by science from a young age, Chladni was forced instead to study law at the insistence of his strict father, a law professor at the local university. Ernst Chladni later recalled a materially privileged but restrictive upbringing – he wasn’t allowed to take up music until he was 19. With his father’s death in 1782, Chladni was free to take up music and mathematics. (4)

In 1787 he discovered a way to make sound waves visible, by sprinkling fine powder on a metal plate and rubbing the edge of the plate with a violin bow. The vibrations caused the powder to form symmetrical patterns (still called “Chaldni figures”). He wrote this up in 1787 in Endectungen über die Theorie des Klages, which founded the discipline of acoustics.

Chladni had a talent for what’s now called “science communication” – his sound wave patterns were visually beautiful, and he combined the science with entertainment and music, inventing and helping to build weird and wonderful instruments – the “clavicylinder”, a kind of glass harmonica harpsichord, and the glass rod-based “Euphon”. With a horse and carriage, he took his show on the road. In a day job familiar to many forteans, he made a living he described as a “nomadic, carefree existence” on the paid lecture circuit, sometimes with 14 gigs in a row in each town.

Now scientifically respectable, Chladni was on tour in Göttingen in 1793 when he got into conversation with the elderly and frail Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, one of Europe’s best-known physicists. Licthenberg told Chladni he’d seen a fireball exploding over the city on a November evening two years earlier. Chladni gave Licthenberg the credit for coming up with the idea that meteors may be “cosmic bodies” and that he should seek evidence in Philosophical Transactions. But having a brilliant idea is not the same as doing the unglamorous library work, as every fortean knows.

Chladni spent the next three weeks in the Göttingen university library, where he found reports of 24 well-documented fireballs and 18 falls of iron or stone, and many less well-documented cases, including ten historical falls from the first century AD to the 17th century. Of these, the most impressive was the mysterious “Pallas iron”. This was a huge 700kg (1543 lb) lump of iron with holes like a Swiss cheese, found by German naturalist Baron Peter Simon von Pallas in Krasnoyarsk, Russia in 1772, and it was still well known when Chladni was researching. The Pallas iron was one of five “iron masses” Chladni knew of.

Chladni found other reports of meteor falls: the recovery of stone fragments “40 or 50 English miles” apart at Blagdon, England, in 1783, and Jean Baptiste Le Roy’s report to the Academie Royale des Sciences on the 1771 Melun, France, fireball (see above). Prefiguring FT’s own “Classical Corner,” Chladni also found reports in Homer’s Odyssey and of the meteor fall on Roman Thrace from Pliny’s Natural Histories.

Chladni’s “lawyer’s ear” convinced him that consistencies in all these accounts meant the eyewitnesses were telling the truth. The patterns he kept finding in accounts were: scorched recovered rocks heated enough to melt their outer layers, thunderclaps, and stones too hot to handle. In Philosophical Transactions Chladni found descriptions of terrestrial stones known to have been struck by lightning, descriptions which were very different from those of meteors. The very high speeds reported and the fact that meteors seemed to come from all directions convinced Chladni that they had to come from “cosmic space.”

Chladni wrote up his researches in the snappily titled Ueber den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen, (On the origin of the mass of iron found by Pallas and of other similar iron masses and on a few natural phenomena connected therewith, see front page at the top of this article), which appeared in 1794. The short book’s chapter headings didn’t pull any punches. One stated bluntly that “fireballs are cosmic bodies” and “most shooting stars are no different.” Other sub-headings insisted that shooting stars are “not of volcanic origin… They are not smelted by lightning.”

Chladni hesitated to publish Ueber den Ursprung, expecting a hostile reception, and he got it. Many scientists immediately dismissed the work because it relied on eyewitness accounts of a phenomenon Chladni has himself never observed, and his methods would still be unacceptable to the scientific establishment today. In later magazine articles, Chladni said people were telling him they believed him but they felt they couldn’t say so publicly. Even Lichtenberg criticised Chladni’s book at first, but eventually came round to his way of thinking.

And while Chladni’s premise turned out to be correct, some of his ideas were bizarrely wrong, far more barking than the prevailing theories of the day. Chladni decided that some small meteors were “spongey masses” that ascended from the earth and caught fire, and that some falling meteors were tiny, but swelled up to enormous size when they hit the atmosphere, while others were made of ‘soft and elastic fluids’. By 1805 Chladni had decided all meteors came from lunar volcanoes, before changing his mind again.

Two months after Chladni’s book appeared, supporting evidence literally fell out of the sky near Siena, Italy. A sparking and booming red cloud threw stones to the ground, some of which were recovered, and they had an identical chemical composition to other meteorites. The Siena fall was widely discussed, most reports blaming lunar volcanoes.

A 56-pounder (25kg) fallen meteorite was recovered from Wold Cottage, Yorkshire in 1795, and went on display in a London coffee house, complete with witness affidavits, where Royal Society’s president, Sir John Banks, saw it. He engaged the young chemist Edward Charles Howard to analyse it. Improvements in chemical analysis techniques since Lavoisier’s day helped identify a distinctive iron-nickel alloy in the Wold Cottage sample, which also showed up in the Sienna stones. Howard had read Chladni’s book on meteors, which was now taken seriously by British authors

While orthodox scientists may not yet have accepted Chladni’s views on meteor origins, his book had at least got them thinking about what evidence they needed to look for – a fall seen by a “trained observer.” A fall of meteors at l’Aigle, France in 1803 seemed to provide the confirmation the sceptics were holding out for.

Young physicist Jean Baptiste Biot, dispatched by the ministry of the interior to investigate these meteor falls, followed a sound fortean principle, always ask the locals. His report was dated Year 11 of the Republic (1803) and it’s noticeable that all the eyewitnesses he interviewed are addressed as “Citoyen,” (Citizen.) In the new egalitarian France, the unlettered observers were no longer contemptible peons but citizens worthy of respect. Biot took the testimony of local Academy of Sciences member Leblond, but also interviewed farmers, an elderly widow and the concierge of the local castle, and their testimony carried equal weight.

Biot also checked the local mineral collections and mines, and found “nothing among their products” anything like the meteor falls he’d found. While not explicitly stating that the l’Aigle fall was extraterrestrial, Biot’s conclusion that it came down to earth at a 22-degree angle “at very great speed” was understood by most readers to preclude other explanations, and he summed up by saying, “I have succeeded in putting beyond doubt one of the most astonishing phenomena that mankind has ever observed.”

The atmospheric propagation of meteors theory lingered on until the 1860s. The idea that meteors were from lunar volcanoes didn’t finally die until the late 19th century. Two centuries later, science historians are divided on whether Chladni was more influential than the then obscure Biot, and on whether Chladni founded meteorics or just laid the groundwork for others to follow.

Chladni continued what he called his “somewhat nomadic way of living” on the paid lecture circuit, largely unaffected by the controversy around Ueber den Ursprung. He “never received and acceptable offer of a professorship.” On the back of his work on acoustics, his most lucrative lecturing gig was a private audience at the Tuileries palace in Paris in 1809, at which he demonstrated his “sound figures” to Napoleon and an impressed Biot and his fellow Academicians. Chladni mentioned Biot’s mission to l’Aigle in his 1819 meteor update Ueber Feuer-Meteore, (On Fiery Meteors), by which time he had discovered the Gentleman’s Magazine, citing its latest reports of Irish meteor falls. Fiery Meteors has a more extensive proto-fortean list of historical “falls that have been observed, in chronological order” and “distances they were observed to travel” – from Japan, 839 AD, “a stone or iron mass” reported in Alexandria in 1280, and so on.

When the Napoleonic Wars came to Wittenberg, Chladni fled to nearby Kemberg, where he was based for the rest of his life, in a crowded one-room house/laboratory. Physicist Wilhelm Olbers said of an elderly Chladni in 1824, “it is truly sad that this, in many ways, deserving man has found no institution to award him a position with a salary.” Chladni died on yet another lecture tour in 1827.

Only in 1950 was the origin of meteors in the asteroid belt conclusively proven, with fireballs being superheated ionising gases around the falling meteorite, and the thunderclap being the sonic boom from the shock wave of it hitting the atmosphere at high speed.

Chladni cited several reports of a sinister hissing sound accompanying falling meteors, and we still don’t know exactly what this is. In recent years, the Ministry of Defence’s Project Condign report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK (see Fortean Times 211:pp4-6, Fortean Times 212: p28, 250: p28) has revealed that government scientists take seriously the idea that superheated meteors may somehow interact with atmospheric gases to create exotic plasmas that are mistaken for flying saucers. Over 200 years after Chladni unravelled the origins of meteors, some meteor mysteries remain.

© Matt Salusbury 2009

In the event, the moon wasn’t a problem, but thick cloud and pouring rain meant we had to call off our Perseid-watching gig for 2010. I saw a few sudden movements in the sky above my garden early on the night of 12 August which could have been meteors.

Another meteor mystery - Since this article first appeared in 2010, I went to a Natural History Museum event at which they let us handle meteors. I sneakily brought along a fridge magnet, which I touched against a large, sawn-in half iron-nickel meteorite to confirm for myself that they are magnetic.

The geologist talking us through the meteorites in the NHM's Earth Sciences Galleries collection told me of another meteorite mystery - some iron meteorites seem to last forever after they've fallen, but some iron meteorites seem to rust away to nothing. While some meteorites are displayed as they are, without even needing a display case, and they let museum punters handle or even climb on them (the bigger ones, that is), others have to be kept in humidity and temperature-controlled cabinets to stop them disintegrating. And nobody knows why.


1) Anaxagoras’ explanation turned out to be partly correct. The cores of some meteorites contain tiny diamonds a few microns across, currently thought to have originated as material expelled from supernovae – exploding suns

2) Rapport fait a l’Académie Royale des Sciences, par MM. Fougerous, Cadet & Lavoisier, d’une observation, communiquée par M. l’abbé Bachela, sur une Pierre qu’on pretend être tombée du ciel pendant un orage Observations sur la Physique, 63-76, June 1772

3) The composer George Frideric Handel had a similar upbringing. His father had a career in law planned for him until he (Handel senior) dad when George was 13, allowing him to take up music for the first time.

4) There is a widely-held belief, especially among “alternative science” enthusiasts, that Lavoisier (or in some versions of the story the French Academy of Sciences) induced all the museums of Europe to throw away their meteorites in 1790, and that is the reason that there are no meteorites collected from before this date in existence today, except the 1492 Ensisheim meteorite, which was too big to throw away. I have found no evidence from primary sources for any mass throw-out of meteorites. Chladni knew of at least five extant “irons” including one from 1751 in Croatia in the Imperial Natural History Cabinet in Vienna, which as the Vienna Natural History Museum stil holds numerous meteorites in its collection that date back to 1748. A piece of the Pallas iron, of 1772 vintage, is still in the Berlin Natural History Museum. Many collections appear to have started shortly after 1790.

The story of the mass throw-out of meteorites may be a pre-internet urban legend. I have traced it back to the first page of Richard Milton’s Alternative Science (Fourth Estate, London, 1991), and Richard Milton told me he can no longer recall the source that he got it from – which is fair enough 18 years after he wrote it .I have not found any sources before 1968 mentioning the alleged mass meteor throw out, and Charles Fort made no mention of it in The Book of the Damned (1919). The resident meteor experts at Imperial College and University College London (UCL), the UK’s leading centres for the history of science, hadn’t heard of such an event either.

I could not find any writings by Lavoisier in which he said “Stones cannot fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky,” the proclamation which allegedly triggered the mass meteor throw-out. (Some internet sources attribute it to France’s Academy of Sciences, or to the “French scientific establishment.” ) Lavoisier was way too busy reforming the French government’s finances in 1790 to bother with that, most of his writings from this year are about the affairs of state. And he wasn’t denying the existence of meteors by then, merely speculating that they came from the upper atmosphere not outer space. Andrew Gregory of the UCL Centre For The History of Science felt that “Stones do not fall from the sky” sounded more like a quote form Aristotle, and he couldn’t see “why anyone would want to say that at that point” in 1790. (But see update below.)

The meteorite collection of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris has a fragment from the 1492 Ensisheim fall in Germany. While the catalogue gives no year of acquisition for this, it was the first meteorite to be registered in the catalogue. See

Ueber den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen, Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Riga, 1794

'Chladni meets Napoleon', H. J. Stockmann, European Physical Journal Special Topics, 145, pp15-23 (2007), EDP Sciences, Springer Verlag 2007

Über Feuer-Meteore, und über die mit denselben herabgefallenen Massen, Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, J. G. Heubner, Vienna, 1819

Chladni Figures – A Study In Symmetry, Mary D. Waller, G. Bell and Sons London 1961

'Ernst Chladni and the origins of modern meteorite research', Ursula B Marvin, Meteorics and Planeteary Science 31 545-588, 1996, Meteorological Society, USA

“J’ai reusi a metre hors de doute un des plus etonnans phenomenes que les hommes aient jamais observes.” A quote from Relation d’un voyage fait dans le department de l’Orne pour constater la realite d’un meteor observe a l’Aigle le 26 floreal an 11, J.B. Biot Instituut Nationale Paris Memoires, Baudoin, Paris, 1799-1819

An account of a surprizing METEOR seen in the air, March the 6th, 1715(16) at night, William Whiston MA,J. Senex, W. Taylor, London, 1716

Elements of Chemistry in a New Systematic Order containing all the Modern Discoveries (Traites de Chemie), Antoine Lavoisier, trans. Robert Kerr, Edinburgh,1790

'Rapport fait a l’Académie Royale des Sciences, par MM. Fougerous, Cadet & Lavoisier, d’une observation, communiquée par M. l’abbé Bachela, sur une Pierre qu’on pretend être tombée du ciel pendant un orage', Observations sur la Physique, 63-76, Paris, July 1772

Endectungen über die Theorie des Klages, Ernst Chladni, Leipzig 1787

Ueber Feuer-Meteore, Ernst Chladni, J. C. Heibner, Vienna, 1819

Lettre ecrite a l’Auteur de cel Recueil, pour M. Lavoisier, de L’Academie, Sur le jeune Homme de Dauphine, don’t il a été question dans la Gazette de la France, des 5, 12 & 15 Juin 1772, Observations sur La Physique, 239-243 June 1772 (Lavoisier debunks dowsing for water)

Mike Jay, ‘Cosmic Debris’, Fortean Times Feb 2001

Update (March 2013): Re: the belief among "alternative science" that Lavoisier ordered the destruction of Europe's metoer collections in the last years of the 18th century, a reader was kind enough to point me to an older source for this. Lindsay B. Yeates, a Ph D student at the University of New South Wales, referred to an article by Friedrich Adolf Paneth, F.R.S. (1887-1958) on "Science and Miracle", in the Durham University Journal (New Series), Vol.10, (1948-1949), pp.45-54.
(also, p.49, he gives a German source in 1918.)

This refers to Lavoisier's 1769 paper, written up much later, about Un pied qui on a pretende ete tombee du ciel. Paneth claims that "the glorious name of Lavoisier" flatly denied it came fom the sky. (Lavoisier wrote at the time - wrongly - that the stone he examined didn't come from the sky, and that "true physicists" didn't have any truck with meteors. An Academy colleague added a more cautious appendix to his report.)

As a result of their reading of Lavoisier, claims Paneth "Scientists in other countries were anxious not be considered as backward compared with their famous colleagues in Paris. It is a sad reflection that in those days many public museums threw away whatever they possessed of these precious meteorites; it happened in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. When in Vienna the well known mineralogist von Born was appointed curator of the imperial collectins he found a drawer labelled "Stones fallen from the sky" and highly amused, ordered them to be discarded, or at least degraded to the rank or ordinary minerals."

Paneth cites an earlier source for the destruction of metoer collections at Vienna and other places - Die Meteorensammlung des naturhistorischen Hofmuseums als Born der Meteoritenkunden (Sitzber. Akad d. Wiss Wien 127, 715 1918 p. 719).

Lavoisier was the junior patrner reporting on the committee examing the stone that allegedly fell from the sky, and the appendix added by colleague on the Academy said that the phenomenon "requires further study". Lavoisier had changed his mind by 1790 (he decided that stones did fall from the sky, he just thought that they were made from gasses that accreted in the upper atmosphere). The Natural History Museum, Paris has a fragment from the Eisenstadt meteor of 1492, long pre-dating the supposed mass metoeor throw-out, although its catalogue online does not give its year of collection.

A meteor in the collection at Vienna was, according to Paneth, saved from the bin as it was in the custody of the bishop, and was retained with a document bearing the imperial seal that forbade its destruction. If museum curators were inspired to throw out meteorites by Lavoisier, it was from a later reading of Une Pied Qui On Pretend... after Lavoisier (still obscure at the time he wrote it) had been elevated to global importance, not as a result of anything Lavoisier said or wrote at the time of the alleged 1790s meteorite throw-out.

A lot of the museum items then labelled as "stones that fell from the sky" could quite legitimately be binned or downgraded, as they obviously didn't stand up to examination, any inventory of the collection would have shown most of them were fossil shark's teeth or prehistoric arrowheads anyway.

The "relegating to ordinary minerals" line cited by Paneth is in keeping with the metoer sceptics usual caveat that it "requires further study."

Over the years this has become somewhat garbled in the retelling, so that by the late 1960s it had become something along the lines of, Lavoisier ordered all the museum collections of Europe to throw out their meteorites, and they mostly did.

Mr Yeates also corrected my description of the statue of Diana at Ephesus "carved from a meteor," it was apparently "the thing that has fallen down from Zeus", completely untouched by human hands, was thought to not only resemble Diana, but to carry her likeness because it was an actual impression made on the object by Diana, and had then been thrown down by Zeus. The object features in in the New Testament's Acts 19:35.