on March 9, 2000
The strong points in this book are these:
1) it is a thoroughly entertaining detailed account of the discovery of the causes for the mass extinction which occurred at the K-T boundary, and
2) it provides an insightful anaylsis of the many pitfalls, lucky strikes, and false trails which are characterstic of any process of true scientific discovery. As such it reminds us of how careful and open-minded scientists need to be in dealing with new insights and discoveries.
For those who are trained scientists, the book is mainly written for the layperson, especially the geological aspects, but that is fine, because as a geologist I am strongly of the view that we need more geological education and understanding in the general community. It is fine if science is written simplistically as long as it is accurate. Walter Alvalrez, for the most part, with perhaps a few exceptions, has managed to achieve this careful tension. The book is not an overview of the various theories and developments concerning mass extinction events, but rather a story of the search told by some who have been deeply involved. Therefore the fact that it doesn't provide an objective overview of the available theories, whilst true, is not really relevant here; Walter Alvarez is telling a story of mostly his own experiences, and those with whom he has worked. As long as this is understood, the book is educational, entertaining, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
I would like to add for those with some knowledge of geological science, that we have some very good exposures of the Permian-Triassic boundary in Australia, which Mr Alvarez notes is not so common in the northern hemisphere. This boundary is recognised as the biggest mass extinction of all, and some of these exposures have not been studied in much detail,let alone from the point of view of mass extinctions. Perhaps, being thus far somewhat geographically isolated from the scientific community of the northern hemisphere, Australia will provide some exciting new developments in our understanding of mass extinctions.
on June 16, 1997
If you're over 30, you've lived through the period during which extinction of the dinosaurs by catastrophic means was debated and explained. At first Luis Alvarez and his son, Walter, were ridiculed for their explanation of what happened at the Cretaceous/Tertiary or K/T boundary.
Walter's book explains the chronology of events in a very readable fashion -- much less academic than the style of Stephen Gould and others. Its a story that tells how father and son found a way to work together, despite very different professions. It also shows how different disciplines worked together, across borders and countries.
What's surprising is how quickly evidence began to accumulate to support the Alvarez' theory. And its interesting to see where they might have been sidetracked or made critical mistakes, were it not for good scientific practice
on February 26, 2001
This is the story of the discovery of why the dinosaurs -- and so many other creatures -- went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. Walter Alvarez was a young geologist who discovered an "iridium anomaly" in a deposit at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary that strongly suggested that an extraterrestrial event of massive effect had happened then. He was joined by his father, Luis Alvarez, a physicist at Berkeley, in the pursuit of the significance of this finding. It seems hard to believe, but most geologists were reluctant to posit anything like a meteor strike as being a significant factor in Earth's history, preferring to explain everything by invoking gradual processes.
Yet it became clear early on that something big had happened, and various candidates were mooted, such as a nearby supernova, or a companion star to the sun periodically throwing comet orbits out of whack. This book is the story of how geologists, chemists, physicists and others over more than a decade closed in on the solution -- a massive impact in the Yucatan Penninsula whose after-effects shrouded the Earth in darkness for many months -- starting with that original discovery back in 1977. This is a reasonably lightweight account, but with enough details to give the reader a good idea of the technical problems without descending into jargon. When you are done you don't really know much more geology than when you started, but you might wish you had become a geologist, because the field trips sure seem like a lot of fun.
on December 18, 2000
Easier reading level than the Powell book, and more suitable for children and teens interested in the topic of the K-T impact extinction.
This title is more of a first person memoir of the development of the theory and not as detailed or as frank about the political aspects of the struggle as the Powell book. Dewey McLean, one of the proponents of a terrestrial, gradual, volcanic cause for the K-T extinction claimed that the elder Alvarez had threatened to ruin his career, and claimed a low level of debate and personal attacks. Even from the quotes here it appears that the late Luis Alvarez took a seemingly unscholarly approach toward those that didn't accept the impact scenario from the outset.
Longstanding objections to the impact extinction -- such as the Deccan Traps, which have been conclusively shown to be of the wrong date and have had little impact on the dinosaur populations nearest to it -- are examined, but see "Night Comes to the Cretaceous" by James Lawrence Powell for a better and more adult oriented book on the same topic and a more detailed examination.
See also "Rain of Iron and Ice" by John S. Lewis.
on October 19, 2014
Do you want to? This is about the theory and it's history of acceptance, nicely written and interesting, not amazing or wonderful, but I've been interested in this since before it was widely accepted and enjoyed the book. It is absolutely not too dry or horrible, it shouldn't be too lightweight for you unless you have seriously studied the subject.
on July 10, 2013
If you've ever been interested in dinosaurs, geology, or asteroids you should read this book. Very clearly written and presents a fairly complete picture of not only or the very complex KT impact but also the science and dogma behind it.
on June 28, 2014
Interesting book, giving insight into the mainstream belief system of geologists. Unfortunately, ever time I reached 58% of the way into the book, I would be put back to the 32% position. I turned my Kindle off and on again, downloaded the book a couple of times and made an incremental update to my Kindle's software. Still had to same problem. I updated my PC's software and downloaded the book and was able to go further, but I DON'T WANT TO READ IT ON MY PC. That's why I bought a Kindle. I searched for some way to let Amazon know about my problem, but was unable to find any sort of complaint form. I found the Return Instructions, but I don't want to return it, I want a good copy I can read.
This probably won't make the reviews, but maybe a kindly employee will send this to the right department.
It's interesting to see that this book is now being used as a text in high school and even junior high school science classes. I had a great laugh from the reaction of a young reader who wrote that it was "boring" and that "Innocent eight graders shouldn't have to read this stuff"!
Ah, yes. Innocence. But 14-year-olds aside, this is a fascinating and delightful story of scientific discovery and triumph second to none. It can be compared to James D. Watson's The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, both in terms of the importance of the discovery and for bringing to the reader some of the excitement and adventure of the quest. It is not, however, as the title might imply, the reading equivalent of watching a Stephen Spielberg movie! And perhaps we can be thankful for that.
T. Rex and the Crater of Doom is the story of one of the great scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. Prior to Alvarez's work, it was not known what had caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Volcanism, disease, climate change, etc., were put forward as possibilities. But in1970 Alvarez began to believe that a large meteor or a comet had struck the earth with enormous force causing the extinctions. But how to prove it? At first it wasn't even imagined how a meteor could bring about such a catastrophe; but gradually it was seen that the debris thrown into the atmosphere by the force of impact would encircle the earth and block out the rays of the sun for months or even years at a time, thereby killing off plants both on the land and in the sea, thereby collapsing the food chain and starving the dinosaurs and most other creatures.
This was the breakthrough idea, and an exciting idea it was. Of course there was great resistance, as there always is in science when established opinions are threatened, and Alvarez and his team of scientists had to fight mightily against the orthodoxy of uniformitarianism which had held sway in geology and paleontology since the time of Charles Lyell. It wasn't until twelve years later in 1992 that Alvarez's theory finally found general acceptance in the scientific community.
One of Alvarez's purposes in this book is to show a general readership how scientific discoveries are made and confirmed. His tone is generous and he goes out of his way (unlike Watson in The Double Helix) to give credit to everyone involved. He makes it clear that the work was a shared enterprise. One thing that stood out in my mind was the central contribution from Alverez's father, Luis, a physicist who unfortunately died before the theory could be confirmed.
Alvarez does however allow himself an occasional sarcasm vis-a-vis the old order. Characterizing the "conventional geologic opinion" on the formation of craters like the Meteor Crater in Arizona as due to "mysterious explosions that occurred at random times and places for no evident reason," he appends this observation: "In retrospect this causeless mechanism...is indistinguishable from magic, but at the time many geologists considered it preferable to catastrophic impacts." (p 76)
Science is especially subject to the braking effect of established opinion because it is extremely difficult for anybody to allow that the established beliefs of their entire professional career can suddenly be overturned. All your life you believed one thing and one day you wake up and some whippersnapper has overturned the entire edifice! That is hard to take, and so entrenched opinion wars against new discovery. But that is as it should be since extraordinary claims do indeed require extraordinary proof.
Therefore, just as "the course of true love never did run smooth" (Shakespeare), so it is with science. Alvarez recounts an early misdirection in the quest when it was thought that they had found plutonium-244 in the KT boundary clay, possibly indicating a nearby supernova explosion 65 million years ago. He and Frank Asaro took their discovery to Earl Hyde, a nuclear chemist who listened patiently to the details and then said, "Do it all over again." This was very good advice because when they did it all over again they found they had erred: there was no plutonium-244 in the clay samples! (p. 74)
After reading this book we are left with an intriguing question: what was the role of volcanism, not only in the KT extinction but in the Permian-Triassic as well? Alvarez hints that there must be more than coincidence involved in the fact that during both extinctions there is indisputable evidence of vast lava flows. Does a truly monstrous impact somehow trigger volcanic eruptions? An "intriguing mystery" is what Alvarez calls it. (pp. 143-144)
This book should be read in conjunction with David M. Raup's The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science which covers some of the same ground (especially the fight against established opinion) while claiming a 26-million year periodicity for impact extinctions caused by Oort Cloud perturbations from a hypothetical companion star, dubbed "Nemesis."
on April 10, 2000
Probably the most investigated mass extinction of the five major events known to have occurred has been the KT boundary event. This is probably because the dinosaur, especially T. Rex--as notice how much the dino named Sue fetched at auction--has captured the popular imagination more than any other animal. It was also the demise of these animals that openned up a world of opportunity for mammals, among which our own species is numbered. We therefore have a vested interest in, a sense of ownership of that catastrophic event as of no other. The notion of an astroid impact as the bringer of the end to the "terrible lizards" is also almost Biblical in proportion. It grabs the imagination. Certainly it has grabbed the media, as several TV programs and at least two movies about astroid impacts have been produced since the introduction of the theory advanced by the Alvarez, father and son. This book is a well written account by Walter Alvarez of the discovery of the clues to that event, of the gradual developement of the theory by many contributors, and of the defense of the theory before the scientific community. In fact the book is a good demonstration of the rigour with which new theories are challenged and defended and of the scientific process itself. It is also a landmark episode of the multidisciplinary approach to research and the growing dialogue between scientists from different fields. (For an opposing theory, also in itself compelling, see Evolution Catastrophies by Courtillot, or click on my name for my review of it. For a more thorough account of the prevailing theories of the KT and other extinctions see End of the Dinosaurs by Frankel or the review of it under my name).
on June 20, 2013
Excellent book, I finally got the whole story about the impact that caused the extinction of the Dinosaurs along with other species. I recommend this book to us laymen since it is written so that we can understand the working of science.
Of course when I first heard about this impact back in the 1980's or was it the 1990's I thought it would be a slam dunk for the Alvarez’s, but of course, this is not the case. Since Science Dogma’s will not tolerate opposing ideas and will put many obstacles in the way which will put a heavy burden to any new and opposing ideas that will require over whelming evidences.
I also got some learning of geology and chemistry of continental and oceanic crusts along with fracture crystals, and tsunami signatures. Also a little bit learning on how elements can be used in scientific inquiries. But even an expert in these fields can be wrong, Mother nature will even fool the experts.
But you know, this is the way science should work as Carl Sagan put it, if you make extraordinary claims, you need extraordinary evidences. What if the uniformitarianism said “okay you right and we are wrong”. How far would the Alvarez’s and there colleagues had taken this investigation? Would we know about the impact area at Chicxulub Crater along with all the signatures of impacts on land or sea. Also, some new scientific technology was invented by Walter’s father to speed up the process.
A good case that was brought up in this book was the continental drift proposed by Alfred Wegener in the 1920's. He had good extraordinary evidence such as fossil of the same plants and animals on separate continents with vast oceans between them. Continents appear to fit together like a puzzle along with geological formations on the coast were basically the same on the coast of another continent and so forth. At that time the scientific community told Wegener to stay out of the geology business and stay with his expertise in the science of weather and they rightfully reject his theory . Why, because he failed to explain the mechanism or causation for moving continents around. Now we know he was right, but it took a world war and the threat of future wars along with new technology of radioactive dating and the earth’s polarization and several other explorations to finally find that causation of continental drift which brought a new science called Plate Tectonics.
Scientific ideas should be able to satisfy three requirements, one is to explain a wide range events or a single phenomenon , two provide a causation for the events or a phenomenon and three, be meaningful. This is what the Alvarez had demonstrate, first the chemistry of the clay at K-T boundary could explain an impact, but there maybe other sources that could have made this chemistry, two the impact crater had to be found to satisfy the second requirement, without this, the impact theory would just be scientific poetry and I don’t like poetry. Was this meaningful? Well yea, guess where the star grazers are looking at now, it definitively not at the stars.
Now I would like to put in a word about uniformitarianism, What a word, my word processor doesn’t even recognize it. Let’s not get rid of it, because it has good value in the earth and life sciences. All that needs to be done, is to get rid of it’s dogma status. Uniformitarianism has served science well by providing good solid answers in the natural world of geology. Now with that said, let’s not make another dogma with the impact theory. These theories will have to share the spotlight along with other extinction processes such as volcanism and solar flares and so forth. Let’s take each mass extinction and scrutinize each like the Alvarez’s did with the impact theory. They may find completely different answers for each one of them or the same for some of them. Whatever, let’s not forget that the next time Mass Extinction raises it’s deadly head, we maybe on it’s extinction list.