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The black market for meteorites

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

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Meteors are ethereal and heavenly as they zip across the night sky—but what happens when they fall to Earth is something else entirely. Writing at the website of the excellent BBC Radio program “The Naked Scientists,” Audrey Tempelsman looks at the global trade in meteorites, and finds a shadowy, globe-spanning gray market.

The price for a meteorite can reach $1,000 per gram, and the laws governing their ownership are as varied as the countries where they land. “If a meteorite crash-lands into your rental home in the U.S. or U.K.,” Tempelsman explains, “it’s considered the landlord’s property. If you stumble upon a space rock in Japan, however, finders-keepers applies.” In other countries, meteorites must be handed over to government-run museums.

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Many meteorite resellers, Tempelsman writes, close their eyes to the legal aspects of the merchandise. As Ralph Harvey, a geologist at Case Western Reserve University, tells Tempelsman,“The skill level that some collectors have to get stones out of Africa rivals that of drug dealers.” Scientists and museums can find themselves negotiating with multiple dealers, each selling a fragment of the same rock; often, they must raise money to outbid deep-pocketed private collectors. It’s a very worldly process in pursuit of an otherworldly object.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit in London.MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

At least it’s not naked

The London Olympics have given the city a controversial new architectural statement: the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a huge tower conceived by the British sculptor Anish Kapoor and the designer Cecil Balmond. At 377 feet tall—72 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty—it’s the tallest piece of public art in Britain; it boasts two observation platforms, and cost about $30 million, with $25 million donated by Lakshmi Mittal, who is Britain’s richest man and the chairman of ArcelorMittal, a steel company.

Reactions have been mixed, to say the least: One architecture critic sees it as “beautifully fractious,” while another condemns it as “fascist gigantism.” It might seem strange to think of this tower as a less controversial option, but apparently that’s what it is: According to the Times of London, the runner-up, proposed by the sculptor Antony Gormley, would have been “a 390 ft naked statue of himself.”

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Built by children

Nowadays, we’re horrified by the possibility that our sneakers or computers might be built overseas using child labor. But whether we like to think about it or not, the industrial Western world was also built in part by children’s hands. Child labor was widely prevalent in England during the Industrial Revolution, helping fuel the social and technological changes that led to modernity. How did this come to be? And what was it actually like?

Istock/Catherine Lane

In a forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review, Oxford economic historian Jane Humphries draws on over 600 autobiographies, as well as census reports, business records, and other statistics, to paint a fine-grained—and harrowing—picture of the forces that brought millions of children into factories, onto farms, and into the British army and navy.

As is popularly supposed, some jobs—such as crawling inside huge machines, or working in small mining tunnels—may actually have been performed more easily by children. But broad shifts in the structure of the economy as a whole, she finds, were just as important.

A huge demand for consumer goods saw factories opening faster than adult labor could be recruited, and a new focus on workplace efficiency meant that even very traditional, nonmechanized jobs (like saddle-making) were being broken down into simple tasks of which even children were capable. Ultimately, child labor had a way of generating its own momentum: Shoemakers, for example, saw the simplest parts of shoemaking taken over by boys as young as 10. When their wages decreased as a result, their own children had to find work, perpetuating the process.

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Seeing the way that child labor was the result of myriad forces, Humphries writes, can help us understand how we might help developing economies avoid the child-labor trap. It also offers a potential way out: As jobs grew more high-tech and complex, “the relative productivity of children” decreased.

And there’s also a moral value in simply remembering what happened: “These children bore many of the social and economic costs of the industrial revolution,” she writes, “but they also contributed to its success and thereby through time to our own comfort and prosperity.”


Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.