Exploration of the Microscopic World: Discovering a Micrometerorite on the Gym Roof

by Dr. Jeffrey Sides ’91 Indian Springs Science Faculty
This story appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Indian Springs Magazine.

The late Alabama native Dr. E.O. Wilson, a world-renowned Harvard ant biologist and conservationist, once said, “We are sort of like the Godzillas of the world—gigantic organisms. We walk, crunch, across this [microscopic] world like Godzilla over New York.”

My goal this year was to introduce Indian Springs science students to an extremely diverse and ubiquitous part of our world that is underfoot and surrounding us each day of our lives but that most of us never see. With that goal in mind, I set out last summer to create a course I call “Exploration of the Microscopic World.”

Research-quality scientific equipment of any sort is often extremely expensive and way beyond the reach of most high school classrooms. Despite this, I knew my students would have the best experience in this class if I could provide them with the kinds of microscopes used in research laboratories around the world.

Weeks of purchasing surplus microscope components on eBay at very low cost and my love of refurbishing and assembling such equipment allowed me to put together a small but respectable microscopy lab in the back room of my classroom.

The Indian Springs microscopy lab now consists of one Nikon Optiphot compound light microscope capable of several interesting microscopy techniques, including fluorescence microscopy and high-resolution digital photography; two Nikon Diaphot inverted research microscopes also with digital photography capability; and a rotary microtome for making very thin sections of material to be examined under the microscope.

While developing this course, I decided I wanted to pursue some projects in the class beyond viewing the usual specimens examined under the typical high school science class microscopes. I wanted something that I knew not many people were studying and something that had almost certainly never been attempted at Indian Springs. I know this desire to think beyond the ordinary is, without a doubt, the result of the greatest gift I received during my own education at Indian Springs from 1987 to 1991: the desire to be a life-long learner. 

Indian Springs gave me the insatiable urge to be curious about the strange, unknown corners of our universe and the never-ending will to explore these mysteries despite the difficulties often involved. Without this gift, I doubt I would have had the ability to pursue and earn a doctoral degree in biology. Working in wildlife conservation, ecology, systematics, and microbiology research for over 20 years was not something I would have ever imagined possible. Why choose such a complicated, uncertain path?

From my first day as a student at Indian Springs, I began to understand the excitement and beauty of learning about the world around me to a depth I never before knew was possible.  A new and wonderful world was daily being revealed to me during classes with Dr. LaCasse (physics), Dr. Cooper (western civilization), Mrs. Tuohy (English), Madame Payne and Dr. Horn (French), Mr. Lantrip (math), Mr. Stegner (expository writing), and so many more areas of study under the guidance of so, so many talented teachers at Indian Springs.

One day last summer, I fell down a Google search rabbit hole of microscopy projects that ultimately led me to a fascinating potential line of research to pursue with my new class.

I read about a Norwegian jazz musician and citizen scientist named Jon Larsen and his quest to find micrometeorites in urban areas. These minuscule meteorites, generally between 0.2 and 0.4 millimeters in diameter, had only previously been found by scientists in pristine areas like rarely visited locales in Antarctica. The dogma held by the scientific community was that there are simply too many human-made look-alikes in urban areas, making finding genuine micrometeorites there akin to finding one needle in a thousand haystacks. 

In 2009, while Jon Larsen was sitting on his back porch in Oslo eating breakfast, a tiny black speck suddenly appeared on the white table before him. Hours of research led him to the conclusion that he had just witnessed a small extraterrestrial particle, a speck of space dust that had been molten as it passed through Earth’s atmosphere at high speed only moments before, land on his table. His path to upsetting the dogma surrounding the ability to locate these particles in urban environments had begun.

Within a few years, Larsen had developed techniques for locating these fascinating and beautiful tiny space rocks; the key was to focus on areas like rooftops with way less contaminating particles than ground level. He collected hundreds of micrometeorites. He published scientific articles about his work and detailed guides to finding and identifying them and concluded that it was likely that every square meter of the surface of the Earth had at least one micrometeorite land on it per year. The typical house roof could hold dozens of micrometeorites amongst its dust, grit, and organic debris.

Objects falling on Earth from space hold such an allure for so many of us that this search for micrometeorites seemed like the perfect project for my new microscopy class. 

Ibrahim Hamo ’25 was brave enough to be the sole student in this inaugural run of my course. He was open-minded and patient enough not to flinch when I handed him a broom, dustpan, and handful of plastic baggies, telling him we were going to climb onto the roof of Indian Springs’ gym in search of space dust.

As we followed Shane Smith of the campus maintenance department up the steep ladder to the gym roof, I saw not a split second of hesitation in Ibrahim’s determination to complete this project. That resolve continued through to the recent day when we confirmed that one of the particles he had found on the roof of the gym, a building that I saw built when I was a senior at Indian Springs, was without a doubt a genuine micrometeorite.

Jon Larsen himself confirmed our discovery when he saw the incredibly detailed image of Ibrahim’s micrometeorite we were able to generate using an extremely powerful scanning electron microscope at UAB’s School of Engineering. 

Intellectual curiosity—gifted to me by Indian Springs and sparked in Ibrahim—led a Norwegian jazz musician and citizen scientist to disrupt long-held dogma and led my class to succeed at doing something scientists deemed impossible a little over a decade ago.

Although “Exploration of the Microscopic World” had but one enthusiastic student this school year, I consider it mission accomplished. As for future projects in the class at Indian Springs, it’s very clear that not even the sky is the limit.

Dr. David Tavakoli ’91 and the Scanning Electron Microscope

In early November 2022, Indian Springs alum Dr. David Tavakoli ’91 kindly loaned us a Hitachi TM3000 portable scanning electron microscope (SEM) for a week. 

David is a research scientist in the IEN/IMat Materials Characterization Facility at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Under an NSF grant for education and outreach, his lab purchased two portable SEMs to loan out to schools and other educational programs. 

David was kind enough not only to deliver the SEM to our lab at Indian Springs, he spent the entire day with 9th-grade biology classes and some AP chemistry classes, demonstrating the use of the instrument and allowing students to have some hands-on experience running it.

The students were very excited to have an Indian Springs alum who works as a research scientist teach them about this incredible technology.

For the remainder of the week that the SEM was on loan to us, the instrument was used by my “Exploring the Microscopic World” class and several other highly motivated students working independently under my guidance.
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