Fans of smart, adventurous, documentary-style reality shows will be happy to learn that on Monday, November 28th, the Meteorite Men return to TV with their third season premiere on the Science Channel. I became a fan based on my affinity for all space-related topics and because they had their ‘Meteorite Bike’ built on another of my favorite reality shows, American Chopper. The Meteorite Men are Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold, two ‘rock stars’ in the space-rock hunting world.
Geoff Notkin is an accomplished science writer and photographer, entrepreneur, musician (who’ll be performing with rock band Feed on December 17th for a charity concert in Tucson), as well as meteorite hunter and show host. Born in NYC, Geoff spent his formative years with his parents in England. As a young child interested in science, a visit to London’s Geological Museum awoke a lifelong passion for pursuing “the locus where geology and astronomy become one” – meteorites. Beyond their intrinsic value to space enthusiasts and sci-fi fans, to hold a meteorite is to honestly hold no less than a piece of creation in your hands. In meteorites, astronomers and geologists find clues to the origins of stars, asteroids, planets and, possibly, even life itself. For Notkin, hunting space rocks has led to his traveling around the world to many strange and outlandish locales, the publication of numerous scientific articles and the world’s first definitive Guide to Meteorite Hunting, increased knowledge of multiple scientific disciplines, and last but certainly not least, adventure time with co-host and expedition partner, Steve Arnold.
A most affable ambassador to the subject of meteorites, Geoff enjoys interacting with fans whether in person at various science events or online using social media. He and I formed a fast friendship last year due to an array of shared interests and online comments of mine regarding his super-fascinating series. When Meteorite Men‘s new premiere date was announced there was little doubt Geoff and I would do an interview about it; my first question was where will the new episode take viewers?
“In the first Season Three episode of Meteorite Men, Steve and I journey to western Poland to explore the spectacular Morasko crater field. It is surely one of the most beautiful meteorite sites in the world, comprising seven distinct craters deep in an ancient forest. Several of the craters are partially filled with water, and algae has turned that water bright green. The crater field is a protected site and we were able to work there with the express permission and support of the local university. I am a military history enthusiast and I was amazed by the well preserved network of World War I trenches that run through the site. The area was also a battleground during World War II, so between the catastrophic impact that took place about 5,000 years ago, and two world wars, the quiet woods of Morasko have witnessed a tumultuous history.” Geoff continues, “Without giving anything away, I will say that a remarkable discovery was made, and I think the Morasko episode will immediately become a fan favorite.”
As a dedicated fan of Geoff’s fun series, who’s seen every episode so far, I still had to do my journalistic duty and ask, what will be different about the new season? Geoff’s answer somewhat surprised me, “One of the challenges of making the show – other than, obviously, finding meteorites – is to keep it fresh and engaging. I have said from the beginning that I don’t want Meteorite Men to end up being a show about two guys walking around in a field with metal detectors. Season Three contains more science, including some highly entertaining demos, and also touches on chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, and cosmology. We visited numerous exotic foreign locations this year, and also brought more hunters and meteorite specialists onto the show to work with us. Our Director of Photography for Season Three, Per Larsson, is a highly respected Emmy Award-winning cinematographer and his expertise, along with the special cameras and filming techniques used throughout, guarantee some marvelous visuals in the new season. We had two new directors this season – James Rowley and Jeff Fisher – and they both brought a lot of passion to the show. James and I both spent our childhoods in England, so there were a number of times when we were bouncing around in an old Land Rover in the wilds of some foreign country, laughing ourselves silly over favorite scenes from British TV comedies, much to the bewilderment of everyone around us.”
Lest the show’s title or above answer mislead you, the production of Meteorite Men is not a male-only endeavor. “At first glance it may appear that the hunting, collecting and studying of meteorites is a male dominated field. When I think of gold prospecting or treasure hunting, I cannot help but get stuck with a mental image of tough, bearded guys digging and sweating somewhere out in the deep desert. I am pleased to say that the reality is quite different.” Notkin expounds, “In Season Three eminent scientist Dr. Meenakshi Wadhwa, Director of the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University, returns to the show, bringing her remarkable insight and expertise. Viewers will also meet two female meteorite hunters: Suzanne Morrison from my adopted home town of Tucson (who also appeared in Season One), and Jen Newman from Edmonton, Alberta. Both are highly successful hunters and their accomplishments will hopefully encourage young women who might mistakenly think that only burly guys can wield metal detectors. Three of the four regular staffers at my company, Aerolite Meteorites, are women, and they are all extremely knowledgeable when it comes to space rocks. During a recent expedition in which one of our female teammates made a remarkable find, everyone was delighted when she exclaimed: “See! Girls can be Meteorite Men too!” I, personally, would like to see more women involved both in our field and in the television series. Women have been making vital contributions to science for centuries. Mary Anning (paleontology), Marie Curie (medicine and chemistry), Florence Nightingale (medicine, nursing, sanitation), and Lise Meitner (physics and nuclear fission) come immediately to mind, but there have been many others, and will be many more in the future. Kari Byron – with whom Steve and I had the pleasure of appearing at the inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. – is a great role model for young women who are interested in science today.”
Everyone knows Mother Nature can be a dangerous dance partner and the unforgiving areas where Geoff and Steve hunt present many harrowing and potentially life threatening challenges. Viewers have, in past episodes, seen the pair encounter a variety of wildlife and unexploded ordnance posing threats unique, and routine, alike. Geoff reveals a bit of the Wildlife Warrior within, “I cannot tell you how many times I have been hiking through knee-high grass in snake country during the summer. Rattlesnakes like to curl up under bushes and they can often be difficult to spot. I’ve had numerous close encounters and I always slowly back up and give rattlers the right of way. Reptiles have been on the planet a lot longer than we have, and my view is I am trespassing on their property. We need to be respectful of wildlife and it’s a disgrace that some people will kill snakes on site. Most reptiles in the United States are not dangerous and don’t want to have anything to do with people. They will get out of the way and quietly go on with their lives if you give them half a chance. The biggest hazard is accidentally stepping on a venomous snake or surprising one, which is why I never go out into reptile territory without my snake gators [heavy canvas protecting ankle to knee]. Steve prefers his snake boots, and I’ve worn them too. They are hot and heavy but they are also impervious to almost any threat, including cactus spines, and I do feel a bit like an invincible Terminator unit when I am stomping around in mine.”
Some threats, however, come in diminutive packages. Such a threat struck while filming an episode for Season Three, Geoff imparts, “As a professional rockhound who spends a lot of time in remote places, I have seen quite a few scary insects, reptiles and other wildlife, and like to think I am used to it, but during Season Three I had an encounter in Russia that was completely new to me in a most unpleasant way. We were shooting at a remote location and were on our way to meet up with local meteorite hunters who had offered to act as our guides. It was a hot day and flowers were in bloom everywhere. As we were driving to the site I rolled the window down because, of course, our beaten up old Russian car did not have air conditioning. A giant bug flew in, bigger than a very big bumblebee, and I had no idea what kind of insect it was. We shooed it out of the window and then noticed that its brothers were flying literally all over the fields around us. The minute we got out of the cars they descended upon us like Valkyrie. Our Russian friends ran up to us yelling: “Get away car. Fly is attracted to heat of car.” And they were! These beasts landed on the hot vehicles in hordes. Now you might think: “Oh, just some flies, big deal,” but these things were flying monsters, about the size of a large grape. My Russian friend explained in more detail: “Fly is blind and will land on you because of heat of your body. They are slow and stupid but bite really hurt, and you need to hit quickly.” So, throughout the hunt, we were constantly swatting at these monstrous flies, and one time Steve wasn’t quite fast enough. A fly bit him on the hand and he started bleeding profusely. Can you imagine the kind of fangs a giant fly needs to make you bleed? It was quite scary and very distracting, as there were thousands of them. Not to mention the snakes.”
Knowing that the Meteorite Men are regularly accompanied by film crews while hunting, I asked if he keeps additional supplies – personal, medical or professional – on a vehicle or vehicles we don’t usually see on the show? “Preparing for a serious expedition always presents me with a quandary: On one hand I want to have spare everything in case of breakdown or emergency; on the other I want to carry minimal gear so we can travel quickly and efficiently. After seventeen years of planning and executing meteorite hunts on four continents I think I almost have it down. If you are traveling in remote areas it is always vital to carry plenty of extra supplies. Some of the places we journey to are genuinely perilous. During the filming of the Season Two episodes in Chile and Australia we had a medic attached to the crew for the duration. We had to deal with significant altitude (11,000 feet), very low temperatures (8 degrees Fahrenheit), venomous snakes, and extremely challenging terrain. If someone suffered a snake bite or a serious fall requiring medical attention it could easily have been one or two days’ drive to the nearest facility, so it pays to be prepared. In Chile, the mountaineering expert who was attached to our team insisted, quite correctly, that everyone drink a minimum of two liters of water per day. Multiply that by fourteen people on the crew, and then by five shoot days per episode and you can understand why we needed a convoy of three 4WD trucks and one cargo van. When we get back to civilization there is a lot of extra water and food to unload, but it’s a lot better to have too much instead of not enough.”
Regarding Geoff’s personal gear, “These days I typically travel with three detectors. I carry my two beloved Fisher hand-helds, an F75 and a T2, both with standard coils, plus a large coil for the F75. My Pulse Star II Pro only works on irons and stony-irons but has tremendous range and I usually take the 18-inch hand-held coil for that, plus a one-meter or two-meter coil which can be pulled behind a vehicle or carried by two people. All of that valuable hardware goes in a large, wheeled Pelican case, which is waterproof and pretty much indestructible (it fell off the back of our truck while we were driving up the side of the Monturaqui Crater in Chile during Season Two with hardly any noticeable effects). Inside the case goes my equipment bag which is home to a pair of Garmin GPS units, compass, Swiss Army knife and camping knife, chargers, spare batteries and detector parts, duct tape, waterproof matches, a flashlight, my brilliant HoTech laser pointer, spare magnets, and a few tools. Add to that a magnet cane, rockhammer, backpack, rain gear, and my portable Meteorite Hunting Kit, and you have a pretty heavy case that has caused looks of concern and consternation to appear on the faces of airline personnel the world over.” Asked to elaborate on the contents of his Meteorite Hunting Kit, Notkin gladly shared, “I designed the Hunting Kit myself with the intention of including everything you really need in the field, and I always carry it with me. It contains basic medical supplies, waterproof specimen bags, a loupe with LED light, a digital scale, rare earth magnet, logbook and pen, and stone and iron meteorite specimens for calibrating detectors – all wrapped up in a tough, lightweight tactical field bag that easily fits into a backpack.” You can purchase a Meteorite Hunting Kit for yourself by visiting their official site here. Pressed to suggest items he’d recommend augmenting his kit with Geoff said, “If I were to develop a larger kit I would add a compass, miniature survival blanket, water purification kit, the SAS Survival Handbook, and a Swiss Army knife.
Being an unrepentant techie, I just had to get more details about his ‘beloved Fisher hand-helds.’ I wondered what’s so special about Fisher? “I am an ardent fan of Fisher gear and they are my metal detector company of choice. At the beginning of Season One Mike Scott of Fisher Labs in El Paso, Texas – one of the foremost detector experts in the business – flew out to Tucson in order to give Steve and me an advanced class in using their new F75 Limited. At the time, there were only four prototypes in existence and we were invited to field test them on the show. It was love at first site for me and I took my F75 on every single field trip for the next two years. I found superb meteorites with it at Whitecourt (Canada), Mundrabilla and Henbury (Australia), Imilac (Chile) and numerous other sites. When a single detector produces so many finds for me I start to look upon it as a close and trusted friend who repeatedly gives me the best possible gifts. As we started filming Season Three, Fisher invited us to try out their new Teknetics T2. I never thought I’d say this, but I liked it even more than the F75, so now they both travel with me everywhere. The T2 is incredibly sensitive – I found a tiny iron meteorite buried thirteen inches underground with it – lightweight, perfectly balanced, and extremely easy to operate. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to any serious treasure hunter, prospector, or meteorite hunter.”
I mentioned that their ‘Meteorite Bike’ was how I first remember hearing about the Meteorite Men, yet it’s just one vehicle among many the pair have used to hunt strewnfields on all types of terrain. Another fan favorite vehicle often featured is the amphibious tracked Hydratrek monster the duo named, The Rockhound. This season will see a trusted old vehicle upgraded. “My primary expedition vehicle for years has been a late ’90s 4WD V6 Toyota pickup which appeared in the first two seasons of Meteorite Men. For Season Three I wanted to up the ante, so I took it in for a major refit. We had the body stripped of all unnecessary parts, sanded down, and painted with a custom matte desert gold which was specially mixed for me. It has top of the line off-road tires, suspension, and shocks, and we added custom made crash bumpers, a bed rack, a bed liner, a laptop mount for the cab, and loaded it with jerry cans, cargo netting, tools, GPS, and everything else required to make it an entirely self-sufficient, go-anywhere, meteorite hunting machine. When fully stocked with extra gas and supplies it has a range of about 750 miles and after thousands of miles of terrifying off-roading, I’ve only had one flat. We call it The Mule, and it’ll be touring various functions with me and the Aerolite Meteorites team next year.”
Still in the shadow of Thanksgiving, I inquired as to the most memorable place Geoff Notkin has ever spent a Thanksgiving Day? “That’s easy. In 2009 I spent Thanksgiving inside artist Robert Smithson’s astonishing Spiral Jetty on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Smithson was fascinated by rocks, geology, maps, and landscape (much like me), and he created the Spiral Jetty in 1970 by dumping 6,000 tons of basalt into the then-rising lake waters. It was intended as a work that would, in time, disappear. In recent years, however, the water level has returned to pre-1970s levels and the Jetty is visible once again. I had been interested in the site for over twenty years, and it so happened that we wrapped filming for the Meteorite Men Season Two episode at the Dugway Proving Ground the day before Thanksgiving, 2009. I was only a few hours’ drive from the Jetty, so as the crew flew home that morning I rented a car and drove north into an unexpected adventure. I wrote about that day in detail in my science and arts blog, The Logical Lizard.”
To close out this interview I asked Geoff to select the Science Channel clip he thought best represented his award-winning show. The video below is his choice. Commenting on it Notkin recalls, “The Head Rush video is my favorite Meteorite Men short even though it’s not an actual clip from the show. The segment was filmed in Chile’s Atacama Desert on our final hunt at Vaca Muerta which made up the second half of our third episode in Season Two. Steve and I had found a large rock late in the day but, for once, we were not entirely sure if it was a meteorite (it turned out to be the real thing, and a truly amazing one at that). We had a tiny window of daylight left and our Field Producer, Sonya Bourn, who is also an accomplished director, drove us to the top of a nearby hill and asked us a bunch of questions without telling us exactly what we were doing. Our answers were cut into this very short film and we did the whole thing in about twenty minutes. The segment has a lot of energy and humor and summarizes, in one minute and one second, who we are and what we do.”
See for yourself what the Meteorite Men do when their exciting third season lands Monday, November 28th @10/9c on the Science Channel. Watch and you’re guaranteed to learn interesting facts about meteorites. You have my word on it.