Monday, March 06, 2006

A Theorist on Mass Extinction Is Honored



AUTHOR: Associated Press (news release)

SOURCE: New York Times

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill (following the article)

RENO, Nev., March 5 - A geologist who proposed the theory that a comet or asteroid smashed into the Earth and killed off the dinosaurs has won a top research award. The geologist, Walter Alvarez, of the University of California, Berkeley, is the 19th recipient of the Desert Research Institute's silver medallion and its $20,000 prize. He is to accept the award here on Monday.

Dr. Alvarez's nearly two-decade investigation produced an uncommon scientific drama of personal tenacity and ingenuity, said Stephen G. Wells, president of the institute.

"Until the impact theory was finally proven, Dr. Alvarez and his colleagues were regarded as heretics by the 'old guard' in the field of geology," Dr. Wells said.

The theory dates to the 1970's in Italy, where Dr. Alvarez and his colleagues found high levels of the element iridium, which is extremely rare on Earth, but common in comets and asteroids. They theorized that it must have come from the impact of a giant asteroid that sent smoke, dust and iridium into the sky, blocking the sun, lowering the Earth's temperature and eventually killing off plants and many species.

Dr. Alvarez's theory, first published in Science in 1980, had few supporters until scientists found evidence of a huge impact crater on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 1989. Later studies found evidence of debris from Mexico distributed by tsunamis that went as far as Arkansas.

The Desert Research Institute, established in 1959, is a nonprofit division of the University and Community College System of Nevada.

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COMMENTARY:

Walter Alvarez and his colleagues exemplify what is right with science (and, by comparison, what's wrong with "intelligent design"). They were looking for something (a way to test a theory about deposition of sediments using a "clock" based on infalling space dust) and entirely by accident discovered something else that turned out to be truly revolutionary. They did the difficult field research, published the results in a peer-reviewed journal, responded to their critics with more research and publications, and eventually carried the day. the IDers want the glory without any of the work, and are trying to "prove" a theory without even finding data to support it. That's intellectual masturbation, not revolutionary science.

--Allen

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ORIGINAL PUBLICATION REFERENCE:

Location Online: New York Times
URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/06/science/06dino.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Original posting/publication date timestamp:
Published: March 6, 2006

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