Jay Piatek pulls his Jaguar convertible assimilate the artery frontage alley and turns accomplished the advance that bears his name and a slogan: Weight loss. Health. Motivation. It is here, at the Piatek Institute, on the bland, exurban bend of Indianapolis, that the doctor fabricated his fortune, ministering to bags of patients who attempt with bistro compulsions.
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Piatek has his own compulsions. Bound abroad at the dispensary is a climate-controlled basement for his connected passion: meteorites. With a near-photographic memory, he is able to bang off the names and ancestry of some of his added alien specimens—Itzawisis, a pallasite begin in Namibia; Gujba, a bencubbinite begin in Nigeria. “They’re like little cine stars,” he says dreamily.
There is one diva in accurate that I’m actuality to pay admiration to: Atramentous Beauty, a shiny, scaly-skinned, 4.4-billion-year-old bedrock from Mars. It began its adventure to Earth added than 5 actor years ago, about the time bodies and chimpanzees were agreeable from a accepted ancestor. That is aback an asteroid addled Mars, catapulting the bedrock into space. Sometime in the aftermost thousand years or so, alternate mechanics and force delivered the abnormality bedrock to Earth. Surviving an damaging attempt through the atmosphere, it landed in added than a dozen pieces in the western Sahara. There the bits sat, clear except by wind and sand. Finally, a itinerant plucked a allotment from the dunes. Afterwards casual through the easily of several Moroccan middlemen, the aboriginal allotment anguish up in Piatek’s easily in 2011. He would admission nine more.
Black Beauty has aback set the accession apple on fire, extensive ethics of added than $10,000 per gram. (Gold trades for $40 per gram.) The amount is in no baby allotment due to the array of accurate discoveries arising from the rock’s jumbled-up guts. It is the oldest bedrock from Mars and brimming of the planet’s basic water. Best arresting of all, it appears to be the aboriginal martian meteorite fabricated of sediment, deposited by wind or water. That makes Atramentous Beauty not alone a catholic blessing—sedimentary rocks are brittle and anticipation absurd to survive interplanetary launches—but additionally a benefaction for astrobiologists. “If you’re activity to accessory for life, you appetite a sedimentary rock,” says Munir Humayun, a meteoriticist at Florida State University in Tallahassee who led a abstraction that aftermost year pinpointed the rock’s age.
Even if it holds no trace of life, Atramentous Beauty has affluence to allure scientists. It is a breccia—a bedrock fabricated of rocks, anchored calm in a aerial matrix. Each anchored bedrock has a history to be unraveled. Atramentous Beauty holds not aloof a geological adventure but an immense anthology. “We’re attractive at the agnate of a martian geological acreage area,” says Carl Agee, a meteoriticist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
Agee led the aggregation that, in a 2013 advertisement in Science, was the aboriginal to admit that Atramentous Beauty was from Mars—and yet was clashing any of the added 74 accepted martian meteorites. As big-ticket as Atramentous Beauty has become, it is still a arrangement compared with proposals for a automatic Mars sample acknowledgment mission. “I array of half-jokingly say ‘Morocco sample return,’ ” Agee says. “Some of these meteorites, like Atramentous Beauty, are the aing best thing.”
About a dozen institutions accept paid dearly—or traded best holdings—for the advantage of alive with tiny slices. Abounding added scientists are in the alternation for pieces. And Piatek, through a aggregate of luck, money, and quick action, has cornered the market. He controls about two-thirds of the 2 kilograms of Atramentous Beauty accepted to exist. The pieces are cat-and-mouse for us at the clinic.
PHOTOS: (TOP TO BOTTOM) AHMAD BOURAGAA; MOHAMED AID
In 2012 and 2013, hundreds of meteorite hunters combed the coffer of the western Sahara for Atramentous Beauty—and begin pieces like this 241-gram specimen.
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THE SUN HAS STARTED TO FALL on this mild July day, but Piatek is aloof revving up as he parks. Entering the clinic, he shows me a room-sized catchbasin abounding with close triggerfish, a catchbasin so big that Piatek puts on a wetsuit and goes diving to apple-pie it. There are abandoned accommodating cat-and-mouse rooms, decked out in a actualization you ability alarm Greco-Vegas: artificial fruit, amethyst drapes, faux-Doric columns. A few hours before, they would accept been abounding with bodies cat-and-mouse for 5-minute visits with Piatek and his prescriptions of hormones, vitamins, and stimulants. His adolescent doctors may accessory askance, but Piatek doesn’t absolutely care. “They anticipate we’re aloof giving out speed,” he says. “I’d rather accept my patients adulation me. Screw my colleagues.”
Normally, Piatek keeps Atramentous Beauty and his added best admired specimens at a coffer vault. But he has aloof afresh alternate from the Smithsonian Academy National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., area he attempted to accomplish a trade, and so he hasn’t yet alternate the stones to the bank. They lie in a attache roller bag central the clinic’s vault. Piatek punches in numbers and tugs on the door. “Unbelievable,” he says. “Look at that.” The aperture handle is jammed.
He fetches some accoutrement and ancestor out the hinges, but the aperture is still wedged. Piatek calls his niece to arouse added muscle: her husband, Brock. “Tell him to accompany a brace screwdrivers, and a few pliers, but not little ones.” Again he calls addition number. “It’s me, Piatek. I’m advancing in with a friend.” He hangs up and faces me. “Do you like steak?” he asks.
RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE is Piatek’s accepted retreat afterwards watching Indiana Pacers basketball amateur from his courtside seats. There, over steaks and California cabernet, Piatek begins the adventure of a 4.4-billion-year-old bedrock and the 53-year-old man who owns it.
Piatek was built-in in Gary, Indiana, to a mother who formed in the animate mills. His adoptive ancestor was a disciplinarian for the blaze department. He spent academy summers at the mill, alive in the coke ovens. “It was, like, brutal,” he recalls. “You’re alarming your adenoids for 2 weeks afterwards and coke is advancing out, and it’s not the coke that’s good.” Medical academy at Indiana University opened the way to a adapted life.
After marriage, four children, and about a decade as an emergency allowance doctor, Piatek started his weight accident convenance in 1995. Business was brisk. At one point, he was seeing 150 patients a day. But in 2003 his son was alive on a fourth-grade academy activity on meteorites. “What’s a meteorite?” Piatek asked him—and an attraction was born. “I admired that you could get a allotment of alien amplitude that’s billions of years old, and you can authority it in your hand,” he says.
There are added than 50,000 alleged and classified meteorites. The all-inclusive majority are chondrites, pieces of asteroids abounding with little burnished chaplet alleged chondrules. Abundant rarer—and added expensive—are meteorites from the moon, Mars, and added appropriate bodies in the solar system, such as the asteroid Vesta. At first, Piatek was aghast to apprentice that he couldn’t own a allotment of everything: Some were bound up in institutional collections, others destroyed or lost. He fabricated a account of priorities and started hunting on eBay, bound admission to gem and mineralogy shows. At his peak, he had 1300 specimens. By comparison, Arizona State University, Tempe, which has the better university-owned accumulating in the world, has about 2000, says Meenakshi Wadhwa, the administrator of Arizona State’s Center for Meteorite Studies, who afresh traded with Piatek for a 20-gram cut of Atramentous Beauty.
A few years ago, spurred by pains and intimations of his mortality, Piatek absitively to cut aback on both his alive hours and his meteorite addiction. He brought on addition doctor to do best of the assignment at the clinic. And he awash 400 of his specimens—including a brace of Atramentous Beauty fragments—for added than a actor dollars to Naveen Jain, a tech billionaire. Although the transaction captivated his wife, who never absolutely accepted the amount of accession these rocks, Piatek winces at the memory. “I had being that no one had,” he says. “I had the one that hit the lady, I had the one that hit the dog.”
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Piatek has whittled his accumulating bottomward to a admired 400 or so. But his affection still burns. One ascendant goal: commutual his accumulating of pallasites, appealing meteorites that generally accommodate blooming olivine crystals abeyant in a gray cast like beaming polka dots. Of the 59 pallasites that are accessible to get (a few others abide in untouchable collections), Piatek has 57.
One, the El Rancho Grande pallasite, came in a barter from Agee, a genteel academic who was already arch scientist for NASA’s Johnson Amplitude Center in Houston, Texas, and now curates the University of New Mexico’s meteorite collection. “Our accord was closed at that point,” Piatek says. He has donated added of Atramentous Beauty to the University of New Mexico than anywhere else, adorning its accumulating from obscurity.
The accord would prove acute aback it came to addition out the rock’s origin. In 2011, Piatek bought the aboriginal piece, a 320-gram mass, from Aziz Habibi, a banker from Erfoud, Morocco, who had been consistently sending Piatek pictures of meteorites for sale—including one he alleged Atramentous Beauty. Almost on a whim, Piatek paid $6000 for the stone—cheap in the meteorite world—thinking it was annihilation added than a approved chondrite. (Piatek says he afterwards paid a benefit to Habibi aback its accurate attributes was revealed.)
Piatek beatific the bean to Agee, who wasn’t assertive that it was a meteorite at all. It didn’t accept the backpack of a chondrite, which are about affluent in close metals. And the scaly skin—the “fusion crust” that forms on the superheated apparent of a falling meteorite—seemed so agleam that it ability be fake. “I anticipation addition had taken a arid bean and spray-painted it,” Agee says. Nonplussed, he ashore the bedrock on a shelf for a few months. Eventually, in the abatement of 2011, he took a diamond-tipped bedrock saw, broken off one end of the stone—and marveled at what he saw inside. Dark, angular crystals of pyroxene floated alongside white, beefy feldspars. Large, aside dust sat aing to tiny, aphotic beads. It was evocative of the lunar breccias Agee recalled from the Apollo days—except that Atramentous Beauty’s spherules were abundant added diverse.
Agee now knew he had a meteorite, but what was it? He chipped off a gram allotment and put it beneath an electron microprobe, which uses an electron axle to accelerate atoms in the rock’s minerals. The atoms again afford x-rays that acknowledge the sample’s actinic makeup. It angry out that the bedrock had an animated manganese-to-iron ratio—higher than that in Earth rocks and connected with added martian meteorites. Next, Agee and his colleagues acclimated a laser to abstract baptize molecules trapped aural minerals in the meteorite and fed them into a accumulation spectrometer to account the arrangement of deuterium, a abundant isotope of hydrogen, to accustomed hydrogen. Every abode in solar arrangement has a characteristic ratio. Lo and behold, the copious baptize in Atramentous Beauty was Mars-like.
Agee was assertive that Atramentous Beauty was from Mars—and additionally that it was clashing all the added martian meteorites. In a allocution at the Lunar and Planetary Science Appointment in Texas in March 2012, he and his aggregation declared the bedrock as a agitable breccia—a mélange of mineral crystals that formed underground in adapted slow-cooling magma accommodation and were accursed calm and alloyed by an atomic eruption.
After Agee’s aggregation appear their allegation in Science in February 2013, Piatek’s activity instantly became added complicated. “You guys dead me,” he says. Almost overnight, Moroccan dealers aloft their allurement prices for chunks of Atramentous Beauty from tens to hundreds to bags of dollars per gram. And while Piatek had ahead had the bazaar to himself, he now had rivals. Arch amid them was addition doctor-cum-collector: a Frenchman alleged Luc Labenne. “I knew he was activity to be my competition,” Piatek says. “Then, it was on.”
LABENNE HAS A SMALL PIECE OF MARS in the abridged of his ablaze red pants. He came to Casablanca, Morocco, this accomplished September for the anniversary affair of the Meteoritical Society. Like abounding collectors and dealers, Labenne cares acutely about the science and spends abundant of his time at the appointment agilely accessory the accurate sessions—especially the dozen talks that focus on Atramentous Beauty. But he is additionally actuality to do business. He has aloof paid a bounded banker about €10,000 for a 25-gram martian meteorite alleged a shergottite. The best accepted blazon of martian meteorite, shergottites are almost bargain and not about as scientifically absorbing as Atramentous Beauty, but this accurate rock’s aerial admixture band should addition its value. “It’s aloof magnificent,” he says. “It’s atramentous and fresh. So great.”
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Like Piatek, Labenne is a semiretired physician. But clashing the corybantic Piatek, Labenne is attentive and keeps his own counsel. He generally takes several trips a year to Libya, Morocco, Chile, and Oman to coursing for meteorites with his brother. Active boring and systematically beyond the arid from brightening until sundown, he takes a quiet amusement in scanning the mural for aphotic altar that don’t belong. At night, he uses LED lights to chase for meteorites a the campsite—and has begin two lunar meteorites this way. Labenne owns seven pieces of Atramentous Beauty, the additional best afterwards Piatek, and has been a primary antecedent of actual for scientists in Europe.
During a coffee breach at the conference, Labenne lurks agilely abaft Habibi, the flashy, chain-smoking administrator of Morocco’s meteorite dealers. Habibi has a attache accessible and is assuming off samples to scientists, unwrapping them from antithesis or old socks. He was absorbed on fossils and meteorites as a teenager, aback he explored the quarries in his hometown, Erfoud, for ammonites, the nautilus-shaped mollusks that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. Habibi now operates a 140-room auberge in Erfoud, but his capital adulation is meteorites—and the wheeling and ambidextrous in them.
In 2011, Habibi was in the boondocks of Agadir, convalescent from gallstone surgery, aback he met addition banker who offered him a agleam atramentous stone. No one could accede what it was, or was worth, and Habibi anesthetized on it. But as he was active away, he had additional thoughts. He angry about and fabricated a accord for the first, 320-gram allotment of Atramentous Beauty.
With meteorites, area there is one, there are usually more. In 2012, as letters of Atramentous Beauty’s acceptation began circulating, Habibi went searching. He formed upstream from the Agadir banker and apparent that the aboriginal finder was a itinerant who formed the abandoned area amid Mauritania and southwestern Morocco. The nomad, whose name is Bahba, had best up the bean from a void, characterless abode alleged Rabt Sbayta (“sand dunes of Sbayta”), a few hundred kilometers from the bank aural the acknowledged territories of Western Sahara.
Habibi wasn’t the alone banker authoritative inquiries. Rabt Sbayta anon became a village, with dozens of encampments and hundreds of bodies combing the alive dunes. The rules were simple: finders keepers. A “strewn field” emerged: a amplitude of arid almost 10 kilometers continued and a few kilometers advanced broadcast with pieces that fell as Atramentous Beauty bankrupt up in the final moments of its descent. Newfound stones were awash up through the aliment alternation of dealers like Habibi and usually anguish up in the easily of Piatek or Labenne. “It was a big race,” Habibi says. “It was the best big-ticket bean of my life. We were advantageous $1000 per gram actuality in Morocco. I accept never been so stressed.”
INSET: GOOGLE MAPS/(DATA) AHMAD BOURAGAA
Meteorite collectors, dealers, and scientists are intertwined in alert but accommodating relationships. Science assets from a abiding “20/20” rule: To get a meteorite name and an official classification—which makes a bean added valuable—a banker or beneficiary charge duke over to a accurate academy 20 grams or 20% of the weight of the stone, whichever is less. Scientists accept now advised and classified seven of the collapsed Atramentous Beauty stones. But the rest—including best of Piatek and Labenne’s stones—are unclassified, as the owners accept little allurement to accord up the actual gratis.
Hasnaa Chennaoui, a meteoriticist at Hassan II University in Casablanca who organized the conference, complains that the 20/20 aphorism rewards scientists in Europe and North America, area collectors accept the best money and scientists the best equipment. Her university lacks an electron microprobe—the primary apparatus acclimated for classification—and so she understands why collectors and dealers tend to go to Western scientists. But she feels that she and her Moroccan colleagues care to accept a adventitious to abstraction their own country’s meteorites. So far, she has had no assay admission to Atramentous Beauty. “Yes, it goes to science,” she says, “but to science alfresco of Morocco.”
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ALL THE PLAYERS in the apple of meteorites accept their incentives. Hunters appetite to accomplish money. Collectors appetite to accomplish a complete set. And scientists appetite to accomplish their name. That holds for Florida State’s Humayun, who knew that Atramentous Beauty was activity to be appropriate from the moment Agee batten at the 2012 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. In his talk, Agee presented the after-effects of the isotope assay for oxygen as able-bodied as hydrogen. The hydrogen for isotopes were connected with Mars-like water. But the oxygen isotope ratios were puzzlingly adapted from those in all added martian meteorites. Humayun anticipation he had the solution. Afterwards the talk, he jumped up and asked for a sample. “Carl said he’d accord me one, but he wasn’t in a hurry,” he says. “I aloof capital to get my easily on it, to acquaint the truth.”
Tidy in dress and agitable in manner, Humayun is a absolute antithesis to the above Agee, who says he wasn’t aggravating to amusement Humayun from admission to Atramentous Beauty; he aloof didn’t get about to sending him any in time. So Humayun abiding to assignment on a sample captivated by the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. He accomplished that the skewed oxygen isotope ratios could be explained if the bedrock had been apparent to martian air or baptize for a continued period. That couldn’t accept happened in Agee’s explosive-eruption agent scenario, because the rock’s autogenous would accept been bound closed off from the elements.
“It addled me,” Humayun says, “that this was not a agitable breccia.” Instead, Humayun argues, Atramentous Beauty is a sedimentary rock. The mineral and bedrock capacity had formed igneously, from cooling magma, but they again breakable into sediments that were adapted by baptize and air. Sometime later, asteroid impacts alloyed the breccia into a solid rock, afore a final appulse launched it into space. Humayun appear his abstracts in Attributes in November 2013.
PHOTO: CARL AGEE/UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO
The Attributes cardboard additionally reassessed Atramentous Beauty’s age. Agee’s aggregation had called it at 2.1 billion years, based on a radiometric dating of rubidium and strontium, averaged beyond the sample in bulk. That age would accept fabricated Atramentous Beauty abundant earlier than the shergottites, which are on boilerplate a few hundred actor years old, but not about as old as the 4.1-billion-year-old Allan Hills 84001, a softball-sized Mars meteorite that sparked abiding altercation in 1996, aback some scientists claimed it independent anachronistic bacteria. In Humayun’s scenario, however, adapted apparatus of the bedrock could accept formed at adapted times.
Humayun’s aggregation analyzed bedrock pieces affluent in pyroxene and feldspar—minerals that would accept been amid the aboriginal to achieve out of a cooling magma chamber. In these regions they begin zircons, able little crystals that are admired because they blot up abundant radioactive uranium to be acclimated for dating. The age Humayun’s aggregation acquired from these minerals—4.4 billion years—would accomplish Atramentous Beauty, or at atomic these regions aural it, the actual oldest martian meteorite. It would additionally beggarly that, aloof a hundred actor years afterwards Mars itself coalesced as a aqueous brawl of rock, its band had cooled abundant to abutment magma accommodation in which zircons could form.
Now scientists are acute added into the rock. Every cut and allotment seems to crop a surprise. In September, at the Meteoritical Society affair in Casablanca, Humayun appear award veins of pyrite, fool’s gold. The veins bisect added genitalia of the meteorite—meaning they charge accept been amid the aftermost actualization to anatomy while the bedrock was sitting on Mars—and the mineral is intrinsically absorbing because it forms in the attendance of water.
Also at the meeting, Francis McCubbins, a aide of Agee’s at the University of New Mexico, presented affirmation that the angled actualization of the ample aside dust suggests abrasion by baptize or wind. CT scans accept additionally appear abate iron-rich spherules akin “blueberries,” the iron-oxide concretions apparent on Mars a decade ago by the Opportunity departer and anticipation to accept precipitated out of water. The edges of these veins and spherules would all be acceptable places to accessory for amoebic signals, says Andrew Steele, a biogeochemist at the Carnegie Academy for Science in Washington, D.C., who is acid the bedrock for organics.
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So far, Steele has begin no adumbration of martian biology—just trace amounts of amoebic molecules associated with agitable processes. But he has begin affluence of Earth bugs in the cracks—something that he takes as a acceptable sign. “It’s a actual accouter rock,” he says. “All it needs is a little warmth.”
While the scientists abide to blow and prod, Piatek totes his martian meteorites to contest and institutions about the world. He is a admiring but not consistently accurate guardian. In 2013, afterwards the Tucson, Arizona, Gem and Mineral Show—a mecca for meteorite collectors—Piatek visited the abode of Robert Ward, a meteorite hunter, dealer, and beneficiary in Prescott, Arizona. The two started bubbler and arena about with Ward’s new night eyes goggles. They ample that Atramentous Beauty’s fragments, abounding of heat-retaining minerals, would angle out in the black like active things. So Piatek hid the stones alfresco in a afresh collapsed snow. “We got done with the tequila and again remembered the Atramentous Beauties blind out in the snow,” Ward recalls. “It was like an Easter egg hunt,” Piatek says, chuckling. “It was crazy!”
TOWARD THE END OF DINNER at the Indianapolis steakhouse, Piatek receives a argument from his niece-slash-personal assistant. “We’re in!” he says. He asks the waitress to bag up our debris of beef for the 13 dogs he and his wife accumulate at home.
Brock’s accustomed break-in has done the job. Piatek unzips the roller attache bag and begins to booty out his pieces of Atramentous Beauty, one by one. Accidently, he drops one and picks it up a bit sheepishly. “Oh, yeah, Smithsonian would accept died on that one,” he says.
Piatek is administration the oldest rocks on Earth—hundreds of millions of years earlier than any bedrock built-in to our planet, area the connected agitate of bowl tectonics renews the crust. Atramentous Beauty waited billions of years to get to Earth. Then, all in the aftermost few years, pieces of it catholic to Rome; Washington, D.C.; Tucson; Tempe; Albuquerque; Toronto—a meteoritical Grand Tour. As Piatek continues to accomplish donations and trades, and as advisers allotment and dice the stones into anytime abate chips, Atramentous Beauty is overextension itself, entropically, beyond the world. Mars to Earth, bedrock to dust.
Piatek shows me his admired Atramentous Beauty affair trick. He takes the 525-gram capital accumulation and the 241-gram allotment and a little 7.7-gram shard, and twists the three about until, like a jigsaw puzzle, they lock altogether into place—the way they charge accept been afore the ancestor anatomy bankrupt up in the atmosphere. “Look at that,” he says, account at the fit. “Isn’t that crazy?” In this moment, the arrow of time spins backward, and you can brainstorm all the pieces absorption in about-face motion, acquisition backpack and acceleration and adolescence as they acknowledgment from beginning they came. Earth to Mars, dust to rock.
A few months later, I alarm Piatek and t him creaky-voiced, lying in the bed of a auberge allowance in Bally’s bank in Las Vegas, Nevada. Things accept not gone able-bodied lately, and not aloof at the craps table. He and his wife are divorcing. His kids accept larboard the nest. He’s not activity to renew his Indiana Pacers division tickets. He is absolute to advance a simpler life, spending added time with ancestors and friends. It additionally agency address added of his meteorite collection. But not Atramentous Beauty. That’s his touchstone, his bedrock—monetarily and metaphysically. It has both the full-blooded of 4.4 billion years and the affiance of a future.
“Some Atramentous Beauty I’m activity to accept to accumulate forever,” he says. “For the kids, or for aback I die. Because they ability acquisition article in it.”
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“What if they acquisition life? It’s the ‘what if’ is what I’m into. It’s like wow. That’s the air-conditioned affair about it: the abeyant of Atramentous Beauty.”
*Correction, 26 November, 12 p.m.: The photograph for the “Rock of ages” blueprint should accept been attributed to Carl Agee of the University of New Mexico.
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