This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 5/13/02
Page A1, Local News; Copyright 2002 by Beth David

Don't call them rocks
Beachcomber thinks he's found meteorite on West Island

By BETH DAVID, Standard-Times correspondent

FAIRHAVEN -- A black rock on a beach. Who hasn't seen one? Who hasn't picked one up, hoping it would be something special?

Now find one that attracts a magnet, or one that attracts metal. What could it be? Ballast from an old shipwreck, or black lava? Common magnetite, or a chunk of some exotic material dragged here by a glacier? To Bob Wilcox, the answer is: none of the above. It's a meteorite. Pure and simple.

"It's not that I was into the astronomy," said Mr. Wilcox, who lives on West Island and has amassed an impressive collection of samples. "I was just out there, bored and curious."

"Out there" is the undeveloped side of West Island where the 53-year-old Vietnam veteran picks up trash nearly every day.
On one of his trash hunts, he noticed a different hunk of material ("don't call them rocks," he admonishes). He picked it up and started looking for more.

As a Vietnam veteran, he learned to look for what does not belong, he said. That is how he noticed the first one.
Then he started thinking. Then he bought a marine chart and noticed the circular pattern of the rock formations by the shore. He believes those are the impact sites.

"I don't even pretend to be an amateur," he said.
But he speaks breathlessly of fusion crusts, chondrules and chondrites, tektites, magnetites and a host of other "ites" with the ease of someone who has spent countless hours poring over books, navigating around Web sites and staring through a magnifying glass at his own collection. He is absolutely sure he found the real deal.

A preliminary examination by John Silva, a professor in the physics department at UMass Dartmouth, only added to the mystery. He pulled out a tray with at least 80 rock samples.
"There's nothing here that looks like it," he said.
From a separate sample box, he pulled out a very small piece of genuine, authenticated meteorite and compared it to one of Mr. Wilcox's samples.

The similarities were striking.

Professor Silva said the only way to be sure about the Wilcox sample is to have a geologist do a chemical analysis on it. But the geologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is on sabbatical, and the geologist at Brown University was not impressed.

"Most meteorite material is consumed by the atmosphere," explained William Collins, a geologist with Brown University. Mr. Wilcox's samples "were interesting, but there was nothing spectacular about them."

Mr. Collins said at least five people have called him recently, claiming to have found meteorites. He believes the interest was probably spurred by a short news item on WLNE-TV that claimed a meteorite landed in Freetown.

"I've seen my share of meteorites," said Mr. Collins, who said he has investigated several impact sites. He said the "rock" in Freetown is not a meteorite.
He said SouthCoast air is too moist, and that meteorites weather rapidly and soon look like any rock.
"I've been looking, but have never found one on my own home turf," he said.

But Mr. Wilcox has no intention of giving up so easily. He said he will send a sample to specialists in New Mexico and Louisiana.
"I told him to keep looking," Mr. Collins said. "It's people like him who find these things because they are bound and determined."

Meanwhile, Mr. Wilcox is not taking any chances. He has moved most of the samples to "safe houses" where they cannot be stolen.
And why would anyone want to steal them, or buy them for the hundreds of dollars per ounce listed on various Web sites?
Because they are very rare and very old.
"It's the absolute rarity," said physics professor Joseph Dowd of UMass Dartmouth. "There's not a lot of it, and it's an antique."

Oh, and one more thing.
"On rare occasions, they can come down with diamonds inside," said Professor Silva.

Now that's a rock.