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 in the US. 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 15 October 1998
The worst thing about this book is its title. The best thing is everything else. Its theme is the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous and how the cause was proved to be the impact of the earth with a comet (or was it an asteroid). The author's interest in the K/T extinction began when he studied magnetic polarity reversals in the Cretaceous and Tertiary. He studied deep sea limestones exposed in the Apennines of Italy and dated them using their foraminifera content. And at the K/T boundary big forams disappear. Then he was told that the dinosaurs disappeared at about the same time. His interest in the thin clay at the K/T boundary began to develop.
The explanation of Lyell, the father of uniformitarianism, for the faunal differences either side of the K/T boundary was that it was an unconformity. It marked a large time gap. But the author's work on polarity reversals had cut the K/T gap to less than half a million years, probably less than a hundred thousand years.
Discussion started with his father, Luis Alvarez, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, about how long a time period the boundary clay represented. The surrounding limestones contained 5 to 10 per cent clay. So was the clay layer deposited when limestone deposition stopped, in which case it represented several thousand years. Or was there a pulse of increased clay input? In which case it represented only a few years. How to do this? Use meteorite dust! (measured as iridium content). The assumption was that meteor dust falls constantly (in tiny amounts) and the amount of dust would tell you how long a bed took to deposit. So if it was deposited in a short time there would be no iridium and if it represented several thousand years there would be about 0.1 parts per billion. (There are about five billion people on earth, so detecting 0.1 ppb is equivalent to finding half a person out of the whole population of the earth.) The analysis was made and it was 9 ppb - 45 people instead of ½ a person! Why? Could it have been a supernova? - No, there was no plutonium in the clay. What could kill dinosaurs and foraminifera and leave iridium but no plutonium? Eventually the idea of a giant meteor impact and its associated dust cloud came to be the only contender.
In the meantime more iridium anomalies at the K/T boundary were found and more and more disciplines became involved. What had been the concern of geologists and palaeontologists, drew in chemists, mineralogists, geochemists, astronomers, physicists, meteorologists, ecologists, and statisticians. Geological problems rapidly became interdisciplinary ones.
Find the Crater
The main stumbling block to the acceptance of the impact theory was the lack of a crater. No visible crater was of the right size or date. Was it covered by sea or ice or had it been subducted? Spherules, thought to be derived from the target rock, were calcium and magnesium rich, indicating, at first glance, an oceanic (basalt, gabbro) origin. But no sub-sea craters were known. The easy option was to say it had been subducted and so had disappeared. And didn't need to be looked for.
Eventually the crater was pinpointed by looking for tsunami deposits. If an impact hit the sea (or, as it turned out, the land near the sea) it would cause tidal waves to radiate out. These would cause erosion of the sea floor at depths greater than normal wave base. As they approached the shore they would trigger turbidites to flow down slope. So the search was on for torn up sea bed covered by sedimentary debris, right at the K/T boundary. And preferably with spherules. These would be found round the ocean where the impact occurred.
These deposits turned up around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. And soon the crater was pinpointed to Chicxulub on the Yucatan peninsula. This was close to the sea but was not on oceanic crust. The limestone and dolomite of the site had provided the Ca and Mg which had suggested an oceanic target and so confused the search.
Read the Book!
I hope that this review encourages you to read the book. The story is exciting - Death of the Dinosaurs, Comet Crashing into the Earth, "Nuclear" Winter, Will it Happen Again? - and gives the flavour of research. It is extremely complicated but the author has a very firm grasp on his material and is not afraid to explain both the simplest and most complex of concepts.
He makes the point that geology is an interdisciplinary science. Other sciences are reductionist, simplifying things so that they can be understood. Geology puts these components back together so that the Earth can be understood.
on 5 May 1998
Walter Alvarez has done a great job of describing the solution to a great scientific mystery: what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs? It is now well known that a large meteor hit the earth 65 million years ago creating a monstrous explosion and dust cloud, blocking the earth from the sun. The proof that was given to us by nature was the Chixculub Crater, created by the asteroid 65 million years before. He lost me a third of the way into the book, as he started to talk of the chemical bases of the iridium and how different machines used certain chemicals to trace other chemicals. It was not that I disliked the book. The pictures were stunning and I thought that for the most part the book was really intriguing from a scientific point of view. The reason for the three points taken off was that, perhaps, in order to make the chronical book length, he combined difficult information with more interesting and less difficult information. I think he was aiming at too wide an audience. Was he talking to high school students? College students? Overall I really enjoyed the book and I recommend this book to anyone over the age of sixteen. It is most certainly a book for someone who has studied some biology, chemistry, or geology in school.
on 28 April 1998
Walter Alvarez commands a mind of genius proportions, and thankfully he put that mind to the task of producing a wonderful book about the thrill of scientific discovery. The book explains how the scientist looks for patterns in nature that allow generalizing and unifying conclusions to be drawn.
Through our joint geological research in the Italian Apennine Mountains, I've had the very good fortune of getting to know Walter. Despite his being one of the world's leading and best known scientists Walter is an extremely friendly and modest person. In this regard he reminds me of Albert Einstein.
Shortly after visiting Walter in Berkeley last year I mentioned that Spielberg might be interested in a movie relating to the "impact" subject. I didn't know at the time that not one but TWO movies were already in production on this subject - one by Speilberg!
T.rex will inspire and lead many young people to choose careers in geoscience. In considering environmental issues and geosocietal hazards I believe this - inspiring young people - will prove to be the most important long-term outcome of Walter's book: T.rex and the Crater of Doom.
on 3 October 1997
T. Rex is two books masquerading as one. On the surface it is about Walter Alvarez' theory of meteor impact and how he believes that it is the cause of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period that marked the end of dinosaurs. It is in this way that the book starts, and describes the theorized events in lucid detail. The remainder of the book is of another kind, and that is the hidden treasure here. This book is a story of personal inquiry and uncertainty, of conflict between father and son resolved through conjoint quest, of the gathering of knowlege by many people with unrelated agendas to formulate and reinforce this revolutionary theory. It is a story of how science really works, how ideas are formed, challenged, reformed, and grow to be accepted. Though not what the title promises, this second book is a delight for anyone with an interest in what living the life of science is really like. It makes this book better than a good science read, and much more personal. Highly recommended.
on 1 August 2009
An excellent and easy read. A vivid and entertaining story of the science of the impact and the scientific process around the discovery. Some pretty naff pictures inside and the cover does look a bit like a scientology book, but it's really worthwhile.
on 10 July 1997
Alvarez has done what few grass roots scientists can, which is provide an intelligent and complete argument that is easily palatable by the layperson. All this and at the same time, probably do much to convince young people that science can be cool, fun, and fascinating.
Admittedly the recent sexiness of the whole dinosaur epoch adds to the momentum of uncovering the answers to one of the gretatest bio-historical questions of all time. However the book has an enjoyable amount of internal momentum, which is not compromised by the occasional necessary tangential forays into scientific proof and annoying things like that.
This is a must read for any inquiring mind of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
on 5 November 1997
Reading T. Rex and the Crater of Doom took me right back to the last semester of my senior year at Berkeley, taking Prof. Alvarez' Geology 10 class. A delightful trip through the research and discoveries of Prof. Alvarez and his colleagues, this book is a must-read for everyone from the geologist to the student to the lover of today's popular dino-fiction. Easy-to-read, yet complete with notes directing you to additional resources, T.Rex and the Crater of Doom would make an especially inspirational gift for the aspiring geologist. Thanks, Prof. Alvarez---and I still say I'd have been a geology major had I only taken your course as a freshman! Cheers!
on 14 August 2011
A fast read. It is possible to read this book in a day because it is short but mainly because the author keeps you interested all the way long.
The first chapter describing armagedon is breathtaking. The other good thing is that the author also talks about his failures.
The only thing is that the author digress on some of his personal details but it stays relatively short and concise which actually helps the story anyway.
on 7 June 1999
This book is a nice account of the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs. I would give the book a rating of 5, but there is a wonderful 15 page narration of the event in the book "The Bible According to Einstein" that covers 90% of what is contained in "T.rex and the Crater of Doom." Why read 152 when you can read 15 in "The Bible According to Einstein."