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.

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Jarkko Kettunen Meteorite Collection © 2021