'Meteorite' Crash Breeds Mass Hysteria

On whatstarted as a normal Saturday night one week ago, residents of a small, remotePeruvian town saw a bright light streak across the sky, heard a resounding bangand suddenly found themselves at the center of a media frenzy.

Initial suspicionsof an airplane crash quickly spiraled into widespreadreports that a meteorite had plummeted to Earth and left a smoking, boilingcrater whose supposedly noxious fumes were reported to have sickened curiouslocals who went to peer at the hole.

Despitedoubts expressed by geologists that the crater was actually caused by ameteorite and firm explanations that a meteorite would not even emit fumes andthat the "sickness" was likely a case of mass hysteria, numerousonlookers far and wide were fascinated by the idea that this event could besome real-life "Andromeda Strain" (the 1969 novel by MichaelCrichton), where a mysterious rock falling to Earth from outerspace made anyonewho went near it ill.

So what isit about things falling from the sky that fills us with such fear that we canmake ourselves sick with panic?


Mediareports of the number of locals afflicted by a "mysterious disease"?withsymptoms such as nausea, headaches and sore throats?after visiting the crater figuredin every news article about the Sept. 15 event, with some reporting that as manyas 600 people had fallen ill.

But doctorswho visited the site told the Associated Press they found no evidence that thecrater had actually sickened such a large number of people.

If noxiousfumes did emanate from the crater, they were most likely the result of ahydrothermal explosion that could have actually formed the crater, or werereleased from the ground when the meteorite struck, if infact one did, according to many geologists.

Arsenic isfound in the subsoil in that area of Peru and often contaminates the drinkingwater there, according to Peruvian geologists quoted on Sept. 21 by NationalGeographic News. Arsenic fumes released from the crater could have sickenedlocals who went to look, said one geologist who examined the site.

Some healthofficials suggest that the symptoms described by the locals, the large numberof people reporting symptoms, and the apparently rapid spread have all thehallmarks of a case of mass hysteria.

"Thosewho say they are affected are the product of a collective psychosis,"Jorge Lopez Tejada, health department chief in Puno, the nearest city, told theLos Angeles Times.

Thispsychosis could have begun as a result of fear of the meteorite and themysterious "disease" on the part of the residents and spread asofficial and media reports seemed to confirm it and give it credence.

"ThePeruvian event seems to be a rare case where we may be witnessing collectiveanxiety that is approaching near hysteria," said Benny Peiser, a socialanthropologist at John Moores University in England. "The major[ity] ofthe affected Peruvian town hinted that some of the mass anxiety is due to fearof imminent impacts and psychological stress which is not surprising given thepremature speculation and media hype."

Fear ofouter space

Fear of ameteorite impact is nothing new?humans have long looked to the heavens with awary eye.

"Thefear of cosmic disaster, in particular cometary impacts, has existed in allcultures for millennia," Peiser told SPACE.com

But thespace age revealed just howmany dangers, including comets, meteors, asteroids, and cosmic rays, awaitus in the final frontier.

"Onlysince the late 20th century, humankind has become aware of the risk posed byasteroids and comets," Peiser said. "Unfortunately, this risk hasbeen wildly exaggerated by popular culture."

Ourcuriosity and fear of impact events has increased their coverage by the worldmedia, Peiser says, which in turn has increased the number of meteorite impactreports, even when the evidence doesn't point that way.

"Inrecent years, there have been numerous cases where alleged meteorite falls werelinked to mysterious explosions on the ground?only to be proven wrong,"Peiser said. "One of the main reasons for the significant increase of suchclaims is almost certainly due to the growing media interest in the cosmicimpact risk. It is part of human nature? and extremely tempting for the newsmedia?to hype any event that initially looks mysterious."

While thisfear is normal and understandable, it's been blown out of proportion so thatthe public thinks that impact risks are higher than they are, Peiser argues.

"Mostpeople are simply not aware that we are making enormous progress in finding andidentifying the population of Near Earth Objects and that the impact risk isthus diminishing year by year," Peiser said.

And when meteoriteshave struck, they have never carried any hint of some mysterious spacedisease.

"Idon?t know of any known record of a meteorite landing that emitted odors sonoxious that people got sick from it," said geologist Larry Grossman ofthe University of Chicago.

So much forthe Andromeda Strain.

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Andrea Thompson

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.