The story begins in the early 1950s when a bright young geologist named Eugene Shoemaker paid a visit to Meteor Crater in Arizona. Today Meteor Crater is the most famous impact site on Earth and a popular tourist attraction. In those days, however, it didn't receive many visitors and was still often referred to as Barringer Crater, after a wealthy mining engineer named Daniel M. Barringer who had staked a claim on it in 1903. Barringer believed that the crater had been formed by a ten-million-ton meteor, heavily freighted with iron and nickel, and it was his confident expectation that he would make a fortune digging it out. Unaware that the meteor and everything in it would have been vaporized on impact, he wasted a fortune, and the next twenty-six years, cutting tunnels that yielded nothing.
By the standards of today, crater research in the early 1900s was a trifle unsophisticated, to say the least. The leading early investigator, G. K. Gilbert of Columbia University, modeled the effects of impacts by flinging marbles into pans of oatmeal. (For reasons I cannot supply, Gilbert conducted these experiments not in a laboratory at Columbia but in a hotel room.) Somehow from this Gilbert concluded that the Moon's craters were indeed formed by impacts—in itself quite a radical notion for the time—but that the Earth's were not. Most scientists refused to go even that far.To them, the Moon's craters were evidence of ancient volcanoes and nothing more.