The Finnish Meteorite Laboratory – Birger Wiik


Birger Wiik 26.7.1916 – 21.4.2003 and the Finnish Meteorite Laboratory

On the 26th of July 2014 I took my car and drove to Westend in Espoo in Finland. I had earlier talked with Urban Wiik on the phone. He had told me that there still exists old meteorite samples in the ”The Finnish Meteorite Laboratory” and I got to hear stories about his father Professor H. B. Wiik.

Mr Wiik founded the Helsinki University collection, when he was the curator of it in the 1970´s. He had become famous for the general public after being the only scientist in Scandinavia to receive moon rocks from the first Apollo missions. Those stones where the science sensation of that time.

When I arrived at Vehkasaarentie in Espoo, I met a widely smiling gentleman waiting for me. He adviced me to find a parking place along the road. This road used to be called Meteoriittitie, in English Meteorite road, but only for a couple of months. The city of Espoo decided to abandon the name due to already existing road with the same name in Porvoo close to the fall site of the Bjurböle meteorite.

I entered with Urban Wiik to their cozy living room in their two story house and sat down around a big table. According to Finnish customs we first drank a cup of coffee and then Urban started to tell the story of how B. H. Wiik became one of the best mineral analytics and meteorite researchers of his time.

Everything started from the chemistry hobby of a Finnish businessman Walther Wahl. He lived in Viipuri and had created a fortune with sawmills around lake Saimaa. Wahl was chosen to be a professor of chemistry in Åbo Akademi 1917-1924 and later in the Helsinki University 1937-1946. As a wealthy man Wahl felt an obligation to support the chemistry science in Finland and bought the first mass spectrometer in Finland to the Helsinki University. For a skillful user of that device he found Birger Wiik.

Professor Wahl contacted Wiik 1948 and asked him to analyse meteorites. Wahl was of the view that all stone meteorites are similar and the small differences in measurements was due to sloppy made analysis. Wiik started the work with eagerness. The results found by Wiik supported the previous findings. Stone meteorites seemed to differ from each other a little bit. Wahl was not happy with these results and stated in 1948 in a congress in London that other researchers around the globe should also analyse the stone meteorites in order for this mystery to be solved. This happened after the conference, especially in the Chigaco University.

Time in Chigaco 1954-55

One of the key researchers in Chigaco was Harold Clayton Urey, who later got a Nobel Price for inventing the heavy hydrogen isotope Deuterium. Urey published a scientific article with Craig in which chondrites where divided chemically in two groups. H (High iron) group chondrites have a lot of iron and L (Low iron) group chondrites have less iron. These results matched well with the results made by Wiik in Helsinki University. As a result of this cooperation Wiik moved to Chigaco for the period 1954-55 where he worked together with Mr Urey.

In Chigaco Wiik’s main task was to make chemical analysis of meteorites. In addition to this he also learned to use the emission spectrograph and taught it also to another Finn Oiva Joensuu, a Finnish scientist who had moved to Chigaco. It was the first time Finns had this knowledge and this kind of instrument was bought to GTK, The Geological Survey Center in Otaniemi, Helsinki, when Wiik returned to Finland in 1956.

The Geological Survey Center 1956-63

In the Geological Survey Center Wiik worked as a researcher whose special area was chemical analysis. This ment that Wiik could be found on the sixth floor of the GTK building working with the emission spectrograph. The end of 1950´s and the beginning of 1960´s was a time of nuclear power flush and the main work for Wiik was to do uranium analysis and uranium measurements around Finland. On the side of his main job he did meteorite analysis to America. Later in an interview Wiik told: “ Meteorites is a narrow area of science and  You can’t make a living out of it. But as a minor it could be a mission for some chemist, astronomer or mineralogist.”

One of the partners in America was Carleton B. Moore. Moore was elected as a Vice President for The Center for Meteorite Studies in the Arizona State University. Moore´s task was to assemble the world’s leading meteorite researchers to the University of Arizona. As a result of this cooperation Wiik and his family moved to America for the second time in 1964.

ASU-Center for meteorite studies 1964-66

Carleton Moore had recommended hiring Birger Wiik as a meteorite analyst to Herbert G. Fales who was an important financier of the ASU-Center for Meteorite Studies. ASU – Center for Meteorite Studies was founded after Mr Fales had bought half of the most significant privet meteorite collection of that time to the Arizona State University. The other half of the Nininger collection was bought to the British Museum. Fales contacted Wiik and managed to convince Wiik to accept a scholarship to The ASU- Center for Meteorite Studies, which still remains as one of the world’s leading research institutes in meteorites.

The Wiik family packed their things and travelled to New York, where they were supposed to meet Mr Fales. Entry Inspection and the bureaucracy was already at that time very thorough in America, so the family had to wait for hours to get all done with the customs and officials. This was a reason why Mr Fales missed the family the Wiiks family at the airport. At that time there were no mobile phones or other ways of contacting. Wiik happened to have a family friend living in Manhattan and they decided to go there to look for accommodation. Mr Fales had no idea where to find Mr Wiik, but as a clever man he hired a private detective to find his employee. As a result the Wiiks and Mr Fales met in NY.

Mr Fales was a peculiar businessman and a Vice-President of an International Nickel Corporation with good connections to the American Space Agency and business world. He took part in developing the X-15 aeroplane and space debris classification, but his real passion was meteorites. Mr Fales interest over meteorites is illustrated well in a story about his trip to Paris. While his wife was shopping in Lafayett, Mr Fales was taking a walk on the Paris center. He happened to remember that there was a new piece on show in a Museum in Stockholm. He had forgotten to check it earlier so he decided to leave immediately to the Museum in Sweden with his private plane. The story tells that he returned just in time to meet his wife after she was done with the shopping.

During the time in Arizona Herbert Fales introduced H.H. Nininger and Barringer Junior to Mr Wiik. Those two were among the most significant private collectors at that time. Fales picked up the Wiik family with his long Merchedes-Bentz and took them to visit Barringer Crater. During the car drive Fales told that he was tired of the problems with his car battery so he had decided to buy a new one. It was the same kind that was used in the American  gemini spacecraft, a nickel cadmium battery. So he did not need to worry any more with his car.

At the crater they met Mr H.H. Nininger and  Barringer junior. Nininger was already a legend among the meteorite people. He was the first person to invent methods to find fallen meteorite pieces. Barringer Junior was the son of famous Daniel Moreau Barringer, who had solved the mystery of the extraterrestial orgin of the Arizona Meteorite Crater. Daniel Barringer had bought the crater and his dream was to dig out the huge iron nickel mass of the meteorite and make money out of it. But this was only a dream, which often engulf the treasure hunters. Later it was found that the main mass had disintegrated in a massive explotion and all the work to find the mass was hopeless.

In any case, they got to hunt meteorite pieces around the crater with these gentlemen and got to see the American Meteorite Museum/Laboratory founded by Nininger in the 1937.

At this point of my visit, Urban interrupted his story and went over to a cabinet and took out one small plastic box. He showed me the same pieces found during that day in the Arizona Meteorite Crater. Pieces were found with metal detectors and weighted around 40 to 100g. These pieces are not so rare, but rare thing was that a Finnish researcher, at that time, had good connections to America and scientists in Arizona. He was able get to the center of meteorite researchers and got to meet the meteorite pioneers.

Nininger told Wiik about his search methods. Those ideas affected the future of meteorite searches in Finland, which Wiik arranged in a hope to find new meteorites while he was working as a curator of the Helsinki University Collection. Nininger also made his guests laugh by telling how he hunted meteorites in his trips. He told that in fact most of his pieces are from flowerbeds. While travelling in a countryside of Texas he always at first checked the flowerbed edges on farms. Normally people put there all the strange rocks that they had found. He had found many meteorites among these rocks and paid dollar or two for a piece to the housewife of the farm.

During his time with the ASU Wiik also gave lectures. In the Historic of ASU it is told that Wiik worked with breath-taking speed to get results of the compositions of meteorites and created a flying phrase: “Only good meteorite is a cut meteorite”. I think this describes the amount of conscious effort he put to his work to solve the inner compositions and structures of meteorites.

Wiik´s time in America was also the beginning of the space age. The race to the moon was on and Wiik was asked if he would be interested in moon rock analysis. Urban told that his father did not hesitate to answer yes. However, this discussion was forgotten when the Wiik family returned to Finland.

The end of the 1960´s and the beginning of the 1970´s

After returning to Finland Wiik received his docent post in the Swedish University and taught mineral analysis. From that position he was hired to the curators post in the Helsinki University Collection by Professor Sahama, a famous Finnish vulcanist. Wiik became an active curator who increased the collection by changing pieces with the foreign museums.

While being a curator of the Helsinki University Collection he also analysed most of the Finnish meteorites. Some meteorites had not been researched properly before the Second World War and for this work Wiik was the right person. In his work he normally cooperated with a famous American moon researcher Professor Mason. Wiik normally did the chemical analysis and Mason the optical work. This New Zeeland born professor worked in Indiana University and as a curator of the meteorite collections in the famous American Museum of Natural History and The Smithsonian Institute. These two people shared special interest to solve the born of the solar system.

The Finnish Meteorite Laboratory

From the Swedish University Wiik moved back to GTK, the Geological Survey Center to become the Chemistry Laboratory Director. From this job he retired in 1979. He continued the meteorite research in his home laboratory, which he named after Niningers examble: The Finnish Meteorite Laboratory. In his laboratory Wiik received a numerous amount of meteorite samples. He did chemical analysis for these pieces. Still tens of these specimens exist in his laboratory, now owned by his son.

When Wiik got older the amount he made meteorite analysis decreased, but he was interested in meteorite research and the new information concerning the birth of the solar system until the end of his life. Birger Wiik died at the age of 86 years on the 21st of April 2003. The highlight of his career was analysis of the moon rocks. After giving the yes answer in Arizona in the 1965 Wiik was contacted 1969. He was told that he is selected to be one of the few researchers to get the opportunity to study the first moon rocks.

Study of the moon rocks

I asked Urban how the study of the moon rocks happened. He seemed to be thinking of something and poured me another cup of coffee. While I was drinking the coffee, Urban went to another room. Soon he came back with a transparent plastic bag. Inside the bag there was a booklet and a steel made container. In the booklet I could see numbers 12052 which was underlined with red pen. The booklet was a short brochure about moon samples made by The NASA. The container was made out of steel cylinder. On the other end there was a thread and a nut that fits the thread. In this small container a small piece of moon rock number 12052 had arrived to Finland for chemical analysis.

When the astronauts brought the moon samples to Earth in 1969, the United States handed out the specimens to 142 researchers around the world. As an only Skandinavian researcher Birger Wiik got an invitation to collect samples from Houston. At that time Finland was under hard pressure from the Soviet Union and probably these moon rock samples were part of the international politics of the time. Anyway Birger Wiik was one of the best rock analyst of his time. Wiik had been named to be a leading researcher of the Space Agency of the United States in 1967. He had the honor to be on this post until year 1979. In the end it was natural that he got the opportunity to study these rocks from the moon.

The trip to Houston got wide publicity in Finland. It was followed everyday by the press. When Wiik arrived to Seutula Airport in Helsinki the TV-cameras and all the press was waiting for him. When the door of the aeroplane was opened Birger Wiik stepped out and rised an old attaché bag which he had tight up with a letter band. Everybody thought that inside were the actual rocks from the moon. Very few people know that in reality mostly the content of the bag was actually cognac bottles. These were gifts from old friend in America. At that time there were strict rules about bringing spirits to Finland, but Wiik knew that the Finnish authorities did not have a permission to touch the attaché bag that contained the precious moon rocks. After the trip there was a couple of parties where people remembered rising cognac toasts for the moon stones.

Wiik was promissed nine grams of stones from the moon, but in the end he brought 26,6 grams of samples to Finland. Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest news paper in Finland organized a two day moon rock exhibition in the exchange house with the American Information Office. There were three lunar samples and a small bag of moon dust under the glass dome. During the 12 hours there were almost 2300 visitors.

Before the study of the moon rocks, people thought that these rocks should remind some existing type of meteorites, but that was not the case. The Moon stones were a class of their own or as Birger Wiik said:” Moon is the third world”. Later after the moon missions these super rare moon meteorites have been found from the earth. Birger Wiik had a wish that maybe it would be possible to find a meteorite from the surface of the moon. This wish was not fullfilled during the first flights. Wiik thought that these missions to moon were very important. Wiik studied long, until the end of his life, how the different pieces of our solar system consist of heavier and lighter materials and how these materials were distributed in different kind and size of pieces in our solar system. These differ a lot depending if it is an asteroid, a planet or the moon. In these studies moon rocks are very important pieces. These studies have helped us to understand the born of the solarsystem and how the different bodies of the solar system have formed.

Interviews with Urban Wiik
Tulipalloja taivaalla, Ursa 1978: Heikki Oja
Helsingin Sanomat, obituary notices, B. Wiik
ASU-Center for Meteorite Studies history

Jarkko Kettunen Meteorite Collection © 2017