Apr 072011

“Chondritics” is a word from astrophysics.  Meteorites – rocks which fall to earth from outer space – come in several types.  One type are called “chondrites”.  The chondritic meteorites are made of grainy stone.  Other meteorites are metallic (made mostly of iron and nickel) or achondritic (stony, but with a smooth texture, not grainy).

When meteorites fall to earth most are found to be chondrites (more than 80%).  Astronomers are interested in them because they are clumps of material left over from the early history of the Sun.  The planets formed from a big cloud of gas and grains.  Some grains were icy snowflakes, some were tiny chunks of rock, others were slivers of metal.  Most of this cloud condensed, just over 4,500 million years ago, into the planets we see today.  The bits that didn’t get swept up into planets became asteroids, comets and meteorites.

So when you look at a chondritic meteorite you’re looking at something that’s not as old as the hills, it’s even older!  No wonder astronomers get excited about them.

The word has two interesting links: hypochondria and chondritis.  Chondritis is a medical condition in which some of the cartilage in your body is inflamed.  It is a painful condition.  Hypochondria is an illness in which people have great anxiety about being ill.

The connection comes from the Greek word chondros meaning a grain (as in grains of sugar).   But the Greeks also used chondros to mean gristle, or cartilage.  If your gristle is hurting you may have chondritis.

In my body, and yours, there is a lot of gristle at the lower end of your breast-bone,  It links my ribs together in a semi-rigid way, tough enough to protect my lungs, but flexible enough to let me breathe.  So the part of the body just under your ribs is called the “hypochondria”, the “bit under the gristle”.  When you feel very anxious it can sometimes feel as though there is a big, swollen space under your ribs.  Worrying too much about possible diseases can give you a pain under your gristle: you become a hypochondriac.

Robin W. Ahlgren

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