While Texas Christian University is a charming place, it’s hardly your typical tourist attraction. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood in central Fort Worth, TCU is known more for its attractive campus (and girls) than anything else.
Don’t expect a sports powerhouse here: the Horned Frogs try, sure, but I get the impression that the school’s more concerned about the education of its students than about athletic bragging rights. Frankly, that’s a real breath of fresh air, but it doesn’t make this tranquil campus an overwhelming draw for the average vacationer.
Ah, but if you pass it up, you’re missing something special. Deep in the heart of the campus, in the Sid Richardson Science Building on the corner of Cockrell and West Bowie, you’ll find a place that’s truly unique: the Oscar E. Monnig Meteorite Gallery.
The Gallery is easy to find, because there are signs all over pointing to it. The University is quite proud of it, and well they should be: it’s the fruit of about fifty years of steady collection on the part of Oscar E. Monnig, a local businessman whose true love was meteorites. For those not in the know, a meteorite is a space rock that actually makes it through the atmosphere to smash into the Earth. Plain old meteors, those shooting stars we see sometimes at night, tend to be tiny and never make it to the surface before burning up. Meteorites can be made of stone, iron, or both, and can be quite beautiful. Monnig and his agents scoured the country for meteorites from the Great Depression on into the 1970s, resulting in a collection consisting of 3,000 fragments of 400 separate specimens. He donated them to TCU in a series of transfers between 1977 and 1987.
The Monnig Meteorite Gallery is relatively small, but it’s chockfull of cool things. Here’s what it looks like from the outside:
Naturally they don’t allow photography inside, but here’s a shot of a couple of meteorites on display outside the main gallery. The smaller one weighs about 60 pounds, and it’s as old as the solar system — about 4.5 billion years. The one on the right’s a comparative baby; it dates only to about 2 billion years ago.
Since I can’t show you pictures of the interior, let me try to describe the gallery. “Gallery” is a good term for it, because it’s a lot more like an art gallery than a museum. The display space, decorated mostly in blues, winds around a small circular central area with two rows of bench seats, where you can watch a short video presentation about meteorites and asteroids and their tendency to hit the Earth and other planets. The exhibits are lovingly displayed by type in plexiglass cases along the walls, with informative plaques nearby. Some remain as they were originally found, but many of them have been cut and polished so you can better see what they’re made of. This is especially impressive when the meteorite has a mixed stony/metal content; they’re hard to describe, but they look like a concretion of precious metals set in dark rock.
It’s amazing to think that almost all of these meteorites — and there are a lot of them — were collected by one enterprising fellow, even over the course of a decades-long career. I say almost all, because a few of them are on loan from elsewhere. These include a selection of Mars rocks that fell to Earth as meteorites, having been blasted off Mars themselves many years earlier by other meteorites. You can even touch a slice of one of these. It’s iron-rich and well-polished, so it’s like touching a steel plate — but hey, you’re actually touching a piece of Mars! That’s a real kick to someone like me, who’s been a space nut since childhood.
I wish I could show you some pictures of the Monnig meteorites, but as in so many museums, no photography is allowed. I’m not sure if it’s for copyright reasons (that’s definitely the case for some museums), or because the flash could hurt the meteorites somehow. Suffice it to say that visiting the meteorite gallery is an enjoyable experience, one I’d happily repeat in the future. Plus, the gallery’s not huge, so it won’t take much time out of your day. And did I mention that it’s free? It’s amazing that you can enjoy such a sense of wonder for free these days.
Incidentally, there’s something just across the hall from the Meteorite Gallery that I couldn’t pass up. It’s not as old as those chunks of space rock I showed you, but it’s ancient nonetheless in human terms.
That’s a giant fossilized ammonite, a kind of primeval cephalopod related to surviving nautiluses. This thing was more than two feet across (!). They used to roam the seas in their millions, but they became extinct around the same time as the dinosaurs. What does this have to do with meteorites? Why, everything! What do you think killed off the dinosaurs and the ammonites? As far as we can tell, the Age of the Dinosaurs (and Ammonites) came to an end when the grandmother of all meteorites slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago. The Chicxulub impactor, as it’s called, was a stony asteroid about six miles across. Its impact kicked up enough water vapor, dust, and soot to block out the sunlight for years; we’re lucky anything survived at all. In a very real way, we have that asteroid impact to thank for our existence; only the smaller animals, including tiny mammals, were able to survive the resulting “nuclear winter.” Those mammals spread into the empty ecological niches the dinosaurs had occupied, and eventually gave rise to us.
The Monnig Meteorite Gallery is open to the public 1-4 PM Tuesday through Friday, and 9AM-4PM on Saturday. It’s closed on Sundays, during school holidays, and between semesters. When you go, you can wander around and look at things on your own, or borrow an audio wand for a self-guided tour. And don’t forget, it doesn’t cost a dime — though you might have to pay for a parking meter outside.