When was the nature and size of asteroids discovered? I was under the impression that it was not until the 1980s or 1990s with deeper space probes and Hubble imagery that we learned the nature of asteroids. However, today the wonderful fortune UNIX script gave this quote from a man who died in 1910:

Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid. -- Mark Twain

How would Samuel Langhorne Clemens have known enough about asteroids to make such a statement in the early 20th century?

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    $\begingroup$ Twain was born under a comet and died under a comet. That probably has something to do with any anachronistic knowledge of his :P $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ You see a comet. You wanna reach it with your hands. No go. You climb a mountain. You wanna reach the comet with your hands. No go. You deduce the comet is far away. You leave a chicken's egg on the mountain and look at it when you descent. You realize the comet appears larger than the chicken's egg does. You have just deduced that the comet is a lot larger than the chicken's egg. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 10:44

1 Answer 1


Well as late as 1942, with a reference to book The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, we didn't even know the correct shape of asteroids, believing them to be round like planets. It was in 1971 that we got a look at the moons of Mars that we got a look at what an asteroid would really look like, although we are now thinking Phobos and Deimos were formed with an impacted. The best information for what your asking can come from XKCD's What If

Before the 1970s, it was common for science fiction to assume small asteroids would be round, like planets.[4] The Little Prince took this a step further, imagining an asteroid as a tiny planet with gravity, air, and a rose. There's no point in trying to critique the science here, because (1) it's not a story about asteroids, and (2) it opens with a parable about how foolish adults are for looking at everything too literally.


So we had we had fifteen asteroids discovered by 1851, and until 1891, all asteroids had been discovered by telescope and eye alone, at which point Max Wolf pioneered the use of astrophotography to detect asteroids. Max Wolf himself ended up credited with the discovery of 248 asteroids.

So while I don't know when Mark Twain made that quote but as far as refering to asteroid, I'll quote wikipedia for the term 'asteroid'

Traditionally, small bodies orbiting the Sun were classified as asteroids, comets or meteoroids, with anything smaller than ten metres across being called a meteoroid.[21][22] The term "asteroid" is ill-defined. It never had a formal definition, with the broader term minor planet being preferred by the International Astronomical Union from 1853 on. In 2006, the term "small Solar System body" was introduced to cover both most minor planets and comets.[23]


The minor planets beyond Jupiter's orbit are sometimes also called "asteroids", especially in popular presentations.[30] However, it is becoming increasingly common for the term "asteroid" to be restricted to minor planets of the inner Solar System.[26]


Mark Twain could have been referring to quite a few objects with the unclear definition of asteroids.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. No matter which object Twain was referring to, he certainly knew enough to state that the asteroid is a huge object (compared to a hen's egg). $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 16:14

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