A Creative Discovery About Dinosaur Extinction

Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez discovered the cause of the extinction of dinosaurs.

Posted Jun 06, 2020

For his work on the hydrogen bubble chamber and the identification of resonance states (usually short-lived subatomic particles) Luis Alvarez had served as administrator to a large staff using the Bevaton particle accelerator at the University of California at Berkeley.

Of his many discoveries and accomplishments, however, Alvarez spoke most enthusiastically and in detail to me about his now-famous dinosaur extinction theory. He had gotten involved in the project when his geologist son, named Walter Alvarez, found during excavations in a gorge near Gubbio, Italy, a narrow but extensive layer of clay bounded by different colors of limestone. 

This layer was, according to Walter’s calculations, laid down underwater at the end of the Cretaceous period of geological history, the period during which it was known that the dinosaurs of the world became extinct. Luis became interested in the layers and collaborated with his son to determine their sedimentation rates (settling of matter).  

Together with nuclear chemists Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, Luis determined that the extensive layer was primarily composed of the element iridium, a metal related to platinum. Soon, a similar layer was found near Denmark.

From that point on, they all attempted to find an explanation for the laying down of the extensive iridium layer as connected with the dinosaur extinction. Luis considered possibilities such as radiation from a supernova, a comet from Jupiter passing over the earth’s atmosphere and spreading enough hydrogen to do away with all oxygen, and other variations of these phenomena.

His key idea, the one that became what is today accepted as the most valid cause, was derived from a creative homospatial process conception [actively conceiving two or more discrete entities occupying the same mental space, a conception leading to the articulation of new identities]. He mentally superimposed an image of a comet entering and breaking up in the earth’s atmosphere upon a famous and well-known image of the effects of a volcano, the 19th-century eruption of the south sea volcano on the island of Krakatoa. As he described it to me:

“A comet or asteroid passed through a fairly long segment of the atmosphere and fragmented into bits. Superimposed on these fragments at the top of the atmosphere, was an image of lava and rock coming up from the volcano. From this, I vaguely visualized the spreading of a floating layer of dust then industrial smoke like coal smoke. The coal smoke was thick and although I knew it would cover a very small number of milligrams per square centimeter of the earth’s surface, in my mind I could hardly see the sun through it. What emerged was an image of spreading darkness where there would be just too much absorption of the light by fragmented asteroid and rock bits. The floating fragment layer would, I considered, stay at the top of the atmosphere for a long time. So, my idea was that it was going to chop out all of the visible light from hitting the surface of the earth and that had the very important consequence that photosynthesis[the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water] would stop instantly.”

Iridium is not ordinarily found on the earth’s crust, and his postulated breakdown of the iridium containing comet and the eventual settling would account for the iridium in the clay. The layers above and below the iridium layer, Alvarez speculated, were produced by the extinction of limestone producing underwater protozoan-like “worms” called foraminifera. After making his coal smoke formulation, Alvarez used a book his famous physician father Walter gave him regarding the effects of the catastrophic eruption of the Krakatoa volcano. He found that 18 cubic kilometers of material were blown up from the island and that 4 actually ended up in the stratosphere and remained there for a period of 2 to 2-1/2 years blotting out light for large distances. He calculated that a collision with the earth of an asteroid “of the Apollo class,” therefore, would produce ascendant light blotting particles throughout the earth’s atmosphere for several years, enough to interrupt all photosynthesis and subsequent plant growth. This would deprive … the herbivorous dinosaurs of food. Spreading fires from the collision and the destruction of other animals, trees and large plants would also kill off the carnivores.

In the year 1991, the discovery of an immense crater in the earth near the Yucatan in Mexico measuring 180 kilometers in circumference, a size predicted by the theory, has now been generally accepted as evidence for their formulation of the mechanism of dinosaur extinction.

In taking the critical step regarding the blocking out of photosynthesis by an asteroid collision with the earth, Luis Alvarez had, early in the homospatial process, deviated from such theories of dinosaur extinction as climate change and creature competition. In a key formulation, he superimposed mentally constructed images of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption and fragments of a disintegrating asteroid. This led to the conception of the blotting out of photosynthesis and then the fully developed creative theory of an asteroid collision with the earth causing massive particle debris at the top of the atmosphere, subsequent blocking of sunlight, and cessation of photosynthesis. Plant and large animal life, including the dinosaurs, were extinguished and only small hibernating animals and roots survived.