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MIT scientist suggests meteorite role in crash of TWA 800

Irving Itzkan is a tough-minded Brooklyn native who learned to argue on street corners in Brighton Beach, and he's used to having people pay attention when he expounds a theory, even if they are listening only to develop counter-arguments.

Dr. Itzkan, a research scientist in the George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory, has a theory about the crash of TWA Flight 800. He shared his thoughts--that a meteorite could have caused the tragedy last July in which 229 passengers and crew died when the airliner crashed off Long Island--and his line of reasoning with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Transportation Safety Board last fall.

The response?

"A deafening silence," recalls Dr. Itzkan, a Cornell graduate with a PhD in physics from New York University. "It was like I sent it down a black hole."

Dr. Itzkan isn't used to being ignored. He came to MIT in 1988 after a 16-year career at the Avco Everett Research Laboratory, which helped solve the reentry problem for NASA and the Department of Defense during the Sputnik era. He is an expert in the medical use of lasers and a founding fellow of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. He is also a member of the laser committee at Beth Israel Hospital and a consultant in lasers and optics for several private corporations.

Recently, Dr. Itzkan learned a lesson in media manipulation from former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, who forced investigators to respond when he pitched the discredited missile theory for the crash on TV. While Mr. Salinger could play his contacts at CNN and ABC and sit back while the other media scrambled to match the story, Dr. Itzkan's possibilities were limited. He wrote a letter to The Boston Globe.

In the letter, published on March 22, Dr. Itzkan says: "Every day, about three meteorites large enough to bring down an airplane hit the earth. Almost all fall harmlessly in remote locations. I estimate that the probability that a meteorite will hit an airplane some place in the world is about 1 percent per century."

Dr. Itzkan, 67, who acknowledges that this is a much longer shot than Mass Millions (he does not buy lottery tickets), notes that as long as the odds are, the probability is not zero. By logically eliminating other theories, he says the meteorite scenario becomes less of a long shot and should be explored, if only to reject it with evidence.

Noting that eyewitnesses reported a visible upward streak in the sky just prior to the crash, seeming to belie the falling meteorite theory, Dr. Itzkan wrote that the trajectory "would appear to be moving upward to a ground-based observer on the shore of Long Island.

"If the meteorite did come from the east or south, it would have been over portions of the Earth that were in darkness in the hour before impact, but would itself be illuminated by the sun," he wrote. "It might have been seen by observers in Europe or Africa, although it would probably have been dismissed as an orbiting manmade object. It might also have struck land, probably in New England."

Response to the letter? The investigators remain mute. However, his friends and colleagues have been supportive.

"Nobody's come up and told me I'm nuts, or implied that it's a kook kind of thing, like a conspiracy theory," Dr. Itzkan said. "My brother-in-law [a retired high-tech public relations counselor] said it sounds plausible."

Dr. Itzkan won't fret about the official cold shoulder. Spring is in the air and Fenway Park and the sea beckon. Dr. Itzkan, a Navy veteran, is an avid sailor, and he plans to spend a lot of time teaching sailing and sailing himself, perhaps cruising on a friend's yacht or schooner. When he's not on the ocean, he'll be at Fenway rooting for the Red Sox, which is not nearly as exciting as rooting for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field but is a reasonable compromise.

Occassionally, he'll look at the sky and wonder.

"No question, the meteorite is a long shot," he said. "But they keep coming up with evidence that rules out the high-probability stuff. I'd say it's gone from a billion-to-one shot to a 100-to-one shot."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 9, 1997.

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