The Rot of the Stars

30 Jan

Questions are being asked in Bournemouth this week as to what exactly fell in Steve Hornsby’s garden last Thursday, 26 January. Here’s a BBC report and a photo (above) via Bournemouth University.

Mr Hornsby thinks they might be some kind of atmospheric pollution; a local scientist has proposed ‘marine invertebrate eggs‘, while the most the prosaic explanation is that they gel desiccants of the sort used by local florist Mel Smith [and this – sodium polyacrylate – turned out to be the right answer].

Whatever the Bournemouth blobs turn out to be, I see them as efficiently-compressed, hi-tech descendants of the enigmatic and elegantly named ‘pwdre ser’, the rot of the stars.

Read on for more about these very fortean space jellies…

The Rot of the Stars

“It appeared larger than the sun, illumined the hemisphere nearly as light as day. [And when it fell] a large company of the citizens immediately repaired to the spot and found a body of fetid jelly, four feet in diameter,” Scientific American, 1846.

This description of a spectacular meteorite fall is a fine example of the phenomenon named by Welsh shepherds, pwdre (sometimes powdre) ser or “the rot of the stars” and also known as star slough, star shot, star spawn or star jelly. These gelatinous blobs, usually whitish, translucent and foul smelling, have been associated with meteorite falls for centuries. In 1656 the metaphysical poet Henry More observed that “the Starres eat those falling Starres, as some call them, which are found on the earth in the form of a trembling gelly, are their excrement”. Often found in early mornings, the jellies usually dry up quickly, disappearing to almost nothing as the day warms up.

Most meteors, composed of rock and ore, burn up instantly on hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, so gelatinous material wouldn’t stand a chance – this is certainly not space gunk. Since at least the early 18th century, the most common earthbound explanation for the mystery goo has been that it is something vomited up by birds or animals; the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant, writing later that century, considered this the answer.

Currently popular is the idea that the grey gloop is frog spawn barfed up by amphibian-eating creatures, though no frogs’ eggs have ever actually been identified within it, and most finds are a good deal larger than your average frog. A recent refinement of the concept is that if a frog is swallowed prior to ovulation, its regurgitated egg duct – which swells dramatically when wet – holds the properties necessary to identify it as pwdre ser.

But that doesn’t mean that jellies never fall from within the atmosphere, as frogs, fish and other critters are occasionally wont to do. In 1995 a translucent jelly-like substance – “enough to fill a kettle” according to the finder – was discovered in a garden in Horley, Oxfordshire; while in 1983, Reading, Massachusetts was pelted with a greyish-white jelly which, when analysed, proved not to be waste from an aircraft, as was first assumed.

From my book Far Out: 101 Strange Tales from Science’s Outer Edge

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