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The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science Paperback – November 17, 1999
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Challenging and thought provoking. -- Los Angeles Times
David Raup is, to put it baldly and justly, the world's most brilliant paleontologist. -- Stephen Jay Gould
Gripping . . . consistently stimulating. -- New York Times
About the Author
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; Rev and Expanded ed. edition (November 17, 1999)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0393319180
- ISBN-13 : 978-0393319187
- Item Weight : 7.5 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,421,669 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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I enjoyed this book very much. Although the information presented is dated, as mentioned above, the prose is clear, friendly, authoritative and quite engaging. The book is a joy to read. It should be of interest to those interested in the early days of the Nemesis theory, as told by one of the active participants, as well as anyone wanting to explore how science really works.
It's a great theory and I love it. Unfortunately no one has ever seen this Nemesis star, which is not due to return for another 13 million years or so. In fact no one has seen the Oort Cloud either, although I understand most astrophysicists believe it is there. And of course paleontologists do not like catastrophic explanations for mass extinctions. In fact they hate them for both theoretical and personal reasons.
Thus we have the ingredients for an engaging and very human story about how science works and how it doesn't work. In this extremely readable book Raup reveals how scientific ideas develop, how they are rejected and accepted, and how some theories can neither be confirmed nor rejected, and how the scientific community treats such ideas, and how the media is involved. The blurb on the book cover has a quote from James Trefil comparing it as a memoir to The Double Helix, James Watson's personal story of how he and Francis Crick got credit for discovering the structure of the DNA molecule. I agree that this book is as readable as that very involving story, but Raup's book is more on the order of readable journalism, while Watson's book was more like a novel.
What is intriguing in both books is the sheer humanity displayed in both a positive and a negative sense. Here we see a kind of knee jerk, turf-protecting rejection of new ideas by the established cadre of scientists, especially in paleontology. In one sense this is understandable. If you work all your life to help build a certain view of the way things are in your chosen field, and along comes an idea that completely overturns your life's work, you are not going to be happy. You will rail against it and try to show that it is false. We see this in all fields of science since all fields are staffed by humans. I notice in psychology, for example, that the old cognitive and psychoanalytical people find it very difficult to accept the findings of evolutionary psychology, some of which make Freud, for example, look very much mistaken. In this sense scientists are like the Victorians who fought against the ideas of Darwin that threatened to overturn their view of the world (and did!).
Part of what makes this book effective is the openness with which Raup tells the story. He is candid to the point of showing and admitting his own faults and prejudices. He shows how success in science is gauged, not by dollars or fame, or even necessarily by what's discovered, but by prestige among colleagues. He writes on page 211 that "one's success as a scientist can be measured more by the number of people he or she puts to work on new problems than by the correctness of specific research results."
This book is a revision of the 1986 edition with a new introduction and a new final chapter entitled "Update 1999." The Nemesis Affair is not over with. Raup lets us know that the crater has been found for the K-T extinction of the dinosaurs, and that most scientists now accept the Alvarez scenario for Cretaceous extinctions. However neither a dark star nor a tenth planet has been found, and so the acceptance of the periodicity of mass extinctions is on hold.
To show how ideas in science can lead to totally unexpected advances elsewhere, note that the work done in understanding how the dinosaurs died after the impact of the K-T meteor led to a realization of the possibility of "nuclear winter," which in turn was a factor in ending the cold war. It is somewhat amazing to realize that the work of Alvarez and his colleagues may have helped to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Some people think that money spent on SETI or on space exploration is wasted. I think that knowledge gained is always valuable, and sometimes, spectacularly so.
The author points out that the star, long known as "Nemesis," or the "Dark star", has never been seen--nor, for that matter has the so-called Oort belt. They are both hypothetical, with no evidence of their true existence.
The whole idea of why species go extinct, with a life span of from one to ten million years on average, depending on the species involved is a mystery to scientists--much like the mystery of why individuals within a species must necessarily die, perhaps.
Although the author defends, as well as finding fault with, scientific method, it sounds much like turf wars between gangs or political parties. And some of their favorite ideas sound, well, less than reasonable shall we say. They seem more impressed with each other's credentials and reputations than the reasonableness of their pet projects. Is a star--even a small one--so hard to see with the optics, radio telescopes, etc., that are available today?
Yet, this hypothesis is no more far-fetched than many others, and may well turn out to be true, yet. Mr. David M. Raup is most persuasive in his presentation.
There are some good points made herein. For instance the author's point that almost all species that ever existed on the earth have gone extinct--both plant and animal life forms. He also mentions that often they simply change form, from environmental necessity, or gradually spawn new life forms. It would seem inevitable, either gradually or catastrophically for any given species to cease to exist and another to arise. If they died out and were not replaced, soon all life would become extinct, or if they did not necessarily die, then life forms would certainly overwhelm the earth at some point. So, a balance is achieved, which, for whatever reason seems to be the order of things.
And the ecologists who continually fret about how the human race is responsible for all of the earth's problems, and want to "save" all its species except their own--(an impossible task, even if they successfully destroyed all of the "evil" human beings, cockroaches would probably survive) would find that all species would continue to die, and others be reborn. An exercise in futility, gone awry.
I suspect that, while the sciences are playing their guessing games and one-upsmanship, the earth will continue to revolve around its poles with a jolly little wobble, continue its orbit around the sun, at least until it implodes, or explodes, and the inhabitants, individually and collectively, will continue to be born, and die, and think that they are so important that they are causing it all. And when Mount Pinatubo or St. Helens erupt they will put out hundreds of time more particulate matter in 24 hours than all of the "pollution" their own insignificant species, Homo Sapiens, will produce in 100 years.(...)