The Time Ann Hodges Was Hit by a Meteorite

C M Handler via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
C M Handler via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you think construction noise is a nap-destroying nuisance, you should check out the space rock that hit a sleeping woman in 1954.

Ann Hodges had settled onto the couch that afternoon with no awareness of the agent of chaos tearing through the heavens above her house. A larger-than-average meteorite was zipping toward our planet, crumbling as it fell. The fireball produced by the meteorite’s disintegration was so bright it could be seen by humans below in three different states. Most of the rock’s bulk was vaporized as it entered Earth’s atmosphere, but one bowling-ball-sized chunk survived and continued on its improbable course.

The scorching-hot rock crashed through the roof of Hodges’s home in Sylacauga, Alabama, then through her ceiling into her living room, bouncing off a large radio before slamming into her unconscious body. Astonishingly, 34-year-old Hodges survived the incident with minor injuries, including a heinous bruise on her waist. But the meteorite’s violent arrival was just the start.

Everyone wanted a piece of the space-struck housewife—Hodges made appearances in newspapers, LIFE magazine, and on TV game shows—but they also wanted a piece of the rock that struck her. Air Force intelligence seized the rock to make sure it wasn’t some sort of spy equipment. Geologists at the Smithsonian wanted to keep it for further study. Ann’s husband Hewlett saw the meteorite as a gold mine and decided to sell it.

Unfortunately, their landlord Bertie Guy had the same idea. The two took it to court, where Guy argued that any celestial object that fell on her property automatically belonged to her. The case became a battle of endurance. Eventually, the landlord lost, but not before the drawn-out legal process drove down the meteorite’s value. By the time the rock reverted to Ann and Hewlett's possession, nobody wanted to buy it. Ann began using it as a doorstop, and eventually donated it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.

The trauma of the incident, legal battles, and overwhelming media attention left their scars on Hodges long after her bruise had healed. She and her husband separated, citing the strain caused by the meteorite and saying they wished it had never happened. Ann fell ill and died just eight years later at the age of 52.

Hodges’s brush with space was, oddly enough, not the beginning nor the end of her home state’s relationship with meteorites. The jazz standard “Stars Fell on Alabama” was penned 20 years earlier in praise of an especially spectacular meteor shower. Six decades later, another meteorite rained debris not too far from the couple’s old home. If this story has a moral, it’s for Alabama residents: Please keep an eye on the sky. 

The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend

iStock/Kazushi_Inagaki
iStock/Kazushi_Inagaki

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

The shower is expected to peak overnight from Sunday, October 21, to Monday, October 22, when you can plan to see 15 to 20 super-fast meteors per hour. The best time for viewing is between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., when Orion appears completely above the horizon. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

There's a chance that the Moon might interfere with the meteors' visibility, according to Space.com. Leading up to its full state on October 24, the Moon will be in a waxing gibbous phase, becoming larger and brighter in the sky as the Orionids speed past Earth. Limiting light pollution where you can—such as by avoiding city lights—will help.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be another meteor shower, the Leonids, in November, and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

A version of this story appeared in 2017.

How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.

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