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Was St. Paul Converted by a Meteorite Fall? — 7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this illustrative case, Br Guy. Curiously, I was listening to your lectures on “Galileo: Science, Faith, and the Catholic Church”, just before I read this post. So, in some ways, I saw this case from the perspective I got after listening to those audios on Galileo. For example, I can see that modern science does not need to demonstrate a particular theory, but it now accepts high probability as sufficient criteria to determine if a proposed theoretical explanation is better than others. However, I wonder if this theoretical explanation of St. Paul’s conversión by a meteorite fall is accepted as one of “high probability”, because it accounts for the phenomena better than others (I can see clearly it does not , from your arguments in the post), or just because a reputable authority supported it (Wasn’t that what you mention “probable” was, but in Gabileo’s day?). I also wonder if this is not the kind of example where the modern “academy” should act as the “referee”, before some of this proposals are published. (I am thinking also in the institution that played the role as “academy” or “referee” in the Galileo affair). Of course, for people like me, not being a researcher nor specialist in the field, the dubious merit of a proposal like this is evident almost only after reading arguments like yours, so thank you again for this clarification. From here , it is even clearer for me that the Galileo affair is not so easy to judge.

    • Carlos Altamirano writes:

      I also wonder if this is not the kind of example where the modern “academy” should act as the “referee”, before some of this proposals are published.

      Prof. Hartmann’s idea has indeed passed through the modern equivalent, in two ways.

      First, Brother Guy mentioned that he gave a talk at a conference, where other scholars took the opportunity to comment upon it in public.

      Second, he submitted his paper to the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, which, I expect, requested other scientists to review it before publication. The role of these scientists is literally called “referee” (or “peer reviewer”). The editor may ask the submitter to make changes in response to the comments of the referees. This doesn’t guarantee that the paper is right, but it does indicate that it meets the journal’s customary standards of rigor.

      Journal editors have been the principal gatekeepers of scholarly authority for a long time. The Internet is bringing changes to that; it’s clear that the economics and practices of academic publication are shifting, but I don’t know enough about the subject to tell you where things are headed.

      • In fact, what I posted here is an edited version of the referee report I gave when the paper was first submitted. I suspect that the paper was accepted anyway in part because of Hartmann’s high status in the field and because even though the idea is unlikely, it is one that could spark interesting speculations… of the sort seen on this blog. In fact, both are valid reasons to publish. Some of the most important papers in our field were published in spite of thorough roasting by referees precisely because the editor judged that the ideas were important enough that they had to be put out there for the community to see and discuss.

        One example is the famous/infamous Science paper in 1996 proposing fossil life in the Mars meteorite ALHA 84001. Most scientists, then and now, did not accept the data as sufficient to prove the point of the paper, but the paper itself has sparked an enormous amount of very good research.

        I don’t think that will be the case with this paper, however!

      • Thank you as well for this clarification. I had lost sight of these important points: that publishing a proposal does not guarantee that it is right, and that some of them, although unlikely, can spark interesting speculations and discussions, and hopefully further good research, as Br. Consolmagno mentions.

  2. Another difficulty I see with the “bolide of St. Paul” is that the flash and the bang wouldn’t arrive at the same time. As with distant lightning and thunder, in general the sound from the shockwave takes longer to reach the observer.

    If memory serves, the delay between flash and BANG! in Chelyabinsk was about two minutes. Unfortunately, this was enough time for thousands of people to rush to the windows to see what made the flash. In the next moment, flying shards of glass were everywhere.

    If a meteor were to make a flash over the road to Damascus, it would most likely occur at a high altitude. Most likely, there would be a very perceptible delay between the light and the sound.

    In order for the flash and the bang to be nearly simultaneous, the bolide must survive down to a very low altitude, practically on top of the observer, and also not far away horizontally. Yet the violence of the shockwave must be low enough to allow the observer to survive. These seem to me to be tough constraints.

    • So I just glanced over the three accounts of St. Paul’s conversion in Acts of the Apostles. (Though I have not yet gotten hold of William Hartman’s paper.) They’re in chapters 9, 22, and 26 of Acts.

      Each account describes a bright flash, but none mentions a bang. So my own discussion of delay between light and sound isn’t relevant to those accounts (except, perhaps, to wonder why, if a meteor was responsible, a bang was not mentioned). Acts 9 does say that Paul fell to the ground, and Acts 26 says that his companions also fell to the ground.

  3. Donald K. Yeomans, Kevin Yau, and Paul Weissman published a paper in 1994 titled “Meteorite Falls in China and Some Related Human Casuality Events

    In this paper, the authors chronicle ancient meteorite falls witnessed and recovered in ancient China; they excluded fireballs that did not produce recoverable fragments. I would suspect there there to be quite a few of those.

    In what must be one of the most spectacular meteorite falls ever witnessed, in 616 A.D. a wall-attacking siege tower suffered a direct hit by a meteorite measuring tens-to-hundreds of kilograms in mass. One can easily imagine what the reaction might have be to a mysterious bolt from the blue destroying an attacking force’s seige engines…

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