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T. rex" and the Crater of Doom

T. rex" and the Crater of Doom

Walter Alvarez
with a new foreword by Carl Zimmer
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    T. rex" and the Crater of Doom
    Book Description:

    Sixty-five million years ago, a comet or asteroid larger than Mt. Everest slammed into the Earth, causing an explosion equivalent to the detonation of a hundred million hydrogen bombs. Vaporized impactor and debris from the impact site were blasted out through the atmosphere, falling back to Earth all around the globe. Terrible environmental disasters ensued, including a giant tsunami, continent-scale wildfires, darkness, and cold, followed by sweltering greenhouse heat. When conditions returned to normal, half the genera of plants and animals on Earth had perished.

    This horrific story is now widely accepted as the solution to a great scientific murder mystery what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs? In T. rexand the Crater of Doom, the story of the scientific detective work that went into solving the mystery is told by geologist Walter Alvarez, one of the four Berkeley scientists who discovered the first evidence for the giant impact. It is a saga of high adventure in remote parts of the world, of patient data collection, of lonely intellectual struggle, of long periods of frustration ended by sudden breakthroughs, of intense public debate, of friendships made or lost, of the exhilaration of discovery, and of delight as a fascinating story unfolded.

    Controversial and widely attacked during the 1980s, the impact theory received confirmation from the discovery of the giant impact crater it predicted, buried deep beneath younger strata at the north coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. The Chicxulub Crater was found by Mexican geologists in 1950 but remained almost unknown to scientists elsewhere until 1991, when it was recognized as the largest impact crater on this planet, dating precisely from the time of the great extinction sixty-five million years ago. Geology and paleontology, sciences that long held that all changes in Earth history have been calm and gradual, have now been forced to recognize the critical role played by rare but devastating catastrophes like the impact that killed the dinosaurs.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4740-2
    Subjects: Paleontology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    Carl Zimmer

    In 1980, Walter Alvarez, a geologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues proposed that the dinosaurs had been exterminated by an asteroid that smashed into the Earth. I was fourteen at the time, and that mix of dinosaurs, asteroids, and apocalyptic explosions was impossible to resist. I can still see the pictures that appeared in magazines and books—paintings of crooked rocks crashing into Earth, sometimes seen from the heavens, sometimes from the point of view of an about-to-become-extinct dinosaur. Suddenly the history of life was more cinematic than any science fiction movie. By luck rather than...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xix-2)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Armageddon
    (pp. 3-18)

    Try to imagine a different world—different from the one we live in. Not wildly different, like the settings of science fiction stories which take place on airless planets or in giant spaceships. We are looking for a world much like our own, but different in subtle ways. J.R.R. Tolkien described such a world inThe Lord of the Rings—with mountains, swamps, and plains like ours, but with a slightly different geography—much like Europe, but not quite the same. Tolkien’s “Third Age of Middle Earth” has familiar inhabitants like humans and horses, but other creatures that we know...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Ex Libro Lapidum Historia Mundi
    (pp. 19-42)

    As recently as 1975, the story of the impact on the Yucatán was completely unknown. One of the most dramatic episodes in the past of our planet had been absolutely forgotten, lost beyond memory for 65 million years. How has this lost memory been recovered?

    We are born in ignorance of the events that took place before our birth, and through the study of history we seek to overcome this native amnesia. We can hear about the most recent events by asking our parents and grandparents, who remember them. History from the times before living memory is written in documents,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Gradualist versus Catastrophist
    (pp. 43-58)

    In previous centuries, travelers crossing the Alps on primitive trails faced drowning in wild rivers, freezing in blizzards, or burial by avalanches. As grim obstacles, slashed through by dark canyons and capped by a wilderness of glacial ice, mountains must often have seemed threatening in the past.

    When scientists began to turn their attention to what we now call geology, an obvious question was how mountains like the Alps came to be. We now see that the answer to this question depended on how much time was available for their creation. Mountains could form slowly and gradually if there was...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Iridium
    (pp. 59-81)

    Uniformitarian gradualism provided an excellent framework for answering questions about the Earth. Geologists learned uniformitarianism from their teachers and found that in practice it almost always led to reliable explanations of geologic features. Exceptions like the scablands of eastern Washington, which seemed to require catastrophic causes, were explained away or ignored. Gradualism had become a dogma.

    It took me a while to realize that the thin bed of clay at the KT boundary at Gubbio not only raised the question of what had caused the mass extinction, but that it also seemed to contradict the gradualistic mind-set of geologists. The...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Search for the Impact Site
    (pp. 82-105)

    The Copenhagen meeting in September of 1979 and the iridium papers of 1980 triggered a storm over the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction that raged through the entire decade of the 1980s. Those of us who were involved felt like we were detectives trying to solve a difficult mystery. But the crime had happened so long ago that the trail of evidence had grown very cold. As we struggled to understand what had happened, it almost seemed as if Nature had cleverly constructed a maze of alibis, misleading clues, and false trails.

    Scientists cannot resist a good mystery. Now that the iridium...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Crater of Doom
    (pp. 106-129)

    Throughout the decade of the 1980s, more and more evidence was discovered that supported the impact theory for the KT extinction, but the impact site remained frustratingly elusive.

    In a good mystery story where the crime is concealed almost perfectly, there is usually a red herring to confuse the detectives. In our case the red herring was the misleading evidence, described in the previous chapter, that pointed to impact in the ocean. However, in a good mystery, there is one tiny flaw in the concealment. Eventually the detective finds the flaw, the rest of the disguise crumbles away, and the...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The World after Chicxulub
    (pp. 130-146)

    The Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary marks a profound discontinuity in Earth history. The early geologists were right to choose it as the dividing line to separate fundamental eras in the history of life—the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic—the era of Middle Life and the era of Recent Life. After the impact at Chicxulub, 65 million years ago, life on Earth was changed forever. The long-standing and stable reign of the dinosaurs had been destroyed by a chance event. The new world was inherited by a different cast of characters, and the previously insignificant mammals came to dominate life on the land....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 147-170)
  13. Index
    (pp. 171-185)