Don't Let Joanna Newsom Give You the Wrong Ideas About Meteors

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On the occasion of this morning's shocking meteor strike outside Chelyabinsk, Russia, you may be inclined to be wondering a lot about meteors and meteorites. Specifically, what is the difference between them? And, if you are like us, you may be inclined to revisit indie-folk harpist Joanna Newsom's ballad "Emily" to answer that exact question.

The track, off the singer's brilliant-yet-difficult 2006 album Ys, is an twelve-minute epic dedicated to Newsom's complex relationship with her astrophysicist sister. In reminiscing about the pair's lost childhood conversations, Newsome sings a haunting refrain about the impromptu science lessons her sister gave her:

That the meteorite is a source of the light

And the meteor's just what we see

And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee

And, later:

And the meteorite's just what causes the light

And the meteor's how it's perceived

And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee

It's a gorgeous, emotionally resonant moment. It is also scientifically incorrect.

Newsom got the meteor part right—that's the fiery ball we see burning up in Earth's atmosphere—but she's mixed up meteorites and meteoroids. A meteroid is what we call the rock when it's floating through space ("what causes the light") and a meteorite is what's left on earth after impact ("a bone thrown from the void"). For reference, check out this handy .gif from Wikipedia:

There is a possibility, as commenters on SongMeanings have suggested, that this error is intentional on Newsom's part—a metaphor for the growing divide between the two formerly close sisters. But regardless, the next time you're grasping for astronomic definitions, resist the urge to parrot Newsom's rhyming lesson, no matter how easily its singsong melody may get stuck in your head.

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