At any given moment, countless pieces of rock from outer space, the debris from long-ago collisions and explosions, dart about over our heads. In any given year, a few thousand of them land on Earth, sometimes smashing a windshield or knocking down a swath of trees, sometimes leaving gaping holes where they land, sometimes, if they're big enough, even condemning whole species to extinction.
And at any given moment of any given year, Tucson-based meteorite hunter and media entrepreneur Geoff Notkin is chasing around one or another of the continents, looking for meteorites where they fell, shooting video for television, gathering material for books and articles, and generally having a rip-roaring good time.
The 56-year-old has been chasing meteorites for decades now, uniting childhood passions for geology and astronomy. At first he confined his rockhounding to parks and forests near his home in London, ranging farther afield in the English countryside as he got a little older. He also nursed a few other enthusiasms, several shared with his classmate Neil Gaiman, who has since grown up to become one of the world's most popular fantasy writers.
It was with Gaiman that he first encountered an oddly British species of punk rock that remains another passion even today, a music of clanging guitars and furious drums calculated to offend grownups. Having seen kids with safety pins in their shirts and bad attitudes in their hearts, both Gaiman and Notkin were hooked, and, in the spirit of the day, they formed a band of their own.
"He was one of the key figures of my life," recounts Notkin of his friendship with the celebrated author, about whom he has produced the feature-length documentary film Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously. "And if he had not suggested, back in 1976, that we start a band, I would have followed a very different and probably far less interesting path."
Punk rock led Notkin to London's seamier edges, and from there to the States, where he played with bands at venues that have since acquired the patina of legend—CBGB, the Stone Pony, the Knitting Factory. He might have kept up a fulltime career as a rocker alone, but other interests pulled at him, including graphic arts and filmmaking—and always, those allied sciences of geology and astronomy.
In the end, it was those sciences that led Notkin to Tucson. "When I was a kid," he says, "my parents brought me out here on an adventure holiday. I was absolutely smitten with Arizona. We went to Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Sunset Crater outside Flagstaff and Second Mesa. We met hippies and Navajos and saw brilliant things. For a 10-year-old who was living in gray early 1970s London, it was really astounding. I was already a rockhound fanatic, but seeing these enormous geological and paleontological wonders, combined with the big sky, the desert, cacti, Native Americans and cowboys—well, I was fascinated."
Notkin lived for a couple of decades in Boston and New York, during which time, along with playing music, he formed the early outlines of a business searching for and buying and selling those rocks from outer space. In 2004, after visiting Tucson for several years to attend the gem show, he moved his Aerolite Meteorites to the city, eventually finding a home for it near downtown.
Getting to that business was as roundabout as the rest of Notkin's life. "I started as a collector," he says. "Then I started writing science adventure travel articles about my expeditions around the world looking for meteorites. And then I started working with a couple of prominent dealers and collectors and museums photographing meteorites. All of this is very complicated work, and something that I had to teach myself—both the art and the business."
His background in graphic arts, nurtured since his days drawing comics with Gaiman, proved to be of inestimable importance in getting that business going, but it helped that Notkin also enjoys even the most tedious aspects of lacing up for a meteor-hunting expedition. Sometimes those trips take him to places that can only be called interesting to someone with a shared passion for space rocks, such as the endless country around Emporia, Kansas, where he recently found a 223-pound piece of pallasite, the third-largest meteorite he has discovered over the years. "We had a giant three-wheel motorcycle built for us by the guys who do American Chopper," he says, "dragging along a giant metal detector back and forth across a field." The appropriately giant meteorite is being studied in a Colorado lab, but Notkin expects that he'll have it back in time to show interested viewers at this year's edition of the gem show.
In the best tradition of amateur science, Notkin blends autodidactic geekiness with a love for turning others on to its wonders. Exhibiting at trade shows and fairs, as well as working with museums, serves that goal. "I love it when kids walk up and look at a meteorite," he says, "and you can see the disbelief being replaced by acceptance in their head that this wonderful thing, this big rock, is not of this earth but instead is from outer space. When I was a kid, that was a very science-fictiony realization, and there's not much that makes me happier than being able to instigate that feeling with other kids now."
Meteorites may have formed the basis of Notkin's cisplanetary empire, which now occupies not just him but four full-time employees, but it has come to extend far beyond those stones from outer space. Music continues to occupy a place in his life, as does art. He continues to write articles and books, and he heads a publishing house that is producing a new edition of his popular book Meteorite Hunting: How to Find Treasure from Space.
He also serves on the board of governors of the National Space Society, an organization devoted to promoting the human exploration of outer space. "I think in our lifetime it will be relatively affordable to go do something up in space," he says. "It's not going to be under the purview of millionaires—as soon as the space industries figure how to turn a profit doing mineral exploration and the like, then we'll see many more initiatives that will take ordinary people up."
Notkin has filmed three seasons of the Discovery Network television show Meteorite Men, recounting his adventures out in the field, and he's working on a project called Department of Strange Finds, which he describes as a sort of catch-all, viewer-driven show featuring cool tools—for Notkin, of course, is also a gadget freak—put to use doing cool things, whether hunting for ghosts or UFOs or looking at the tech behind space colonization. "It's no silly fake-reality television drama," he says. "This is me adventuring with my crew and a collection of motley guest stars, and apart from that I really have no idea where it's going to take us."
Tucson turns out to be the perfect base for his many enterprises, Notkin says, not just because of the gem show and its role as a world-class center for geological and space research, but also because it's a world-class headquarters for DIY freak-flag-flying. "Tucson's biggest appeal for me is its accepting nature. There are a lot of real eccentrics who live here, people who don't get hassled for going about in weird outfits doing weird things. You would be looked at in a very strange way in many parts of the world, but here nobody minds. You don't have an issue with the guy wearing a tinfoil hat or dressing like Merlin or whatever, the things that you see here on a regular basis. That makes me feel very good. The world of science, and of science fiction, is strange anyway, and Tucson makes a really good Venn diagram of delightful weirdness."
A man of parts, Geoff Notkin is doing more than his share to keep Tucson weird. This year marks his 20th anniversary as an exhibitor at the Tucson gem and mineral shows.