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Thread: The Nastiest Feud in Science

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    The Nastiest Feud in Science

    The Nastiest Feud in Science

    A Princeton geologist has endured decades of ridicule for arguing that the fifth extinction was caused not by an asteroid but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions. But she’s reopened that debate.


    Gerta Keller was waiting for me at the Mumbai airport so we could catch a flight to Hyderabad and go hunt rocks. “You won’t die,” she told me cheerfully as soon as I’d said hello. “I’ll bring you back.”

    Death was not something I’d considered as a possible consequence of traveling with Keller, a 73-year-old paleontology and geology professor at Princeton University. She looked harmless enough: thin, with a blunt bob, wearing gray nylon pants and hiking boots, and carrying an insulated ShopRite supermarket bag by way of a purse.

    I quickly learned that Keller felt such reassurances were necessary because, appropriately for someone who studies mass extinctions, she has a tendency to attract disaster. Long before our 90-minute flight touched down, she’d told me about having narrowly escaped death four times—once while attempting suicide, once from hepatitis contracted during an Algerian coup, once from getting shot in a robbery gone wrong, and once from food poisoning in India—and this was by no means an exhaustive list. She has crisscrossed dozens of countries doing field research and can claim near-death experiences in many of them: with a tiger in Belize, an anaconda in Madagascar, a mob in Haiti, an uprising in Mexico.

    Keller had vowed not to return to India after the food-poisoning debacle. But, never one to avoid calamity, she’d traveled to Mumbai—and gotten sick before her plane had even landed; an in-flight meal had left her retching. Keller was in India to research a catastrophe that has consumed her for the past 30 years: the annihilation of three-quarters of the Earth’s species—including, famously, the dinosaurs—during our planet’s most recent mass extinction, about 66 million years ago. She would be joined in Hyderabad by three collaborators: the geologists Thierry Adatte, from the University of Lausanne; Syed Khadri, from Sant Gadge Baba Amravati University, in central India; and Mike Eddy, also from Princeton. They picked us up at the airport in a seat-belt-less van manned by a driver who looked barely out of his teens, and we began the five-hour drive to our hotel in a town so remote, I hadn’t confidently located it on a map.

    Where I looked out our van’s window at a landscape of skeletal cows and chartreuse rice paddies, Keller saw a prehistoric crime scene. She was searching for fresh evidence that would help prove her hypothesis about what killed the dinosaurs—and invalidate the asteroid-impact theory that many of us learned in school as uncontested fact. According to this well-established fire-and-brimstone scenario, the dinosaurs were exterminated when a six-mile-wide asteroid, larger than Mount Everest is tall, slammed into our planet with the force of 10 billion atomic bombs. The impact unleashed giant fireballs, crushing tsunamis, continent-shaking earthquakes, and suffocating darkness that transformed the Earth into what one poetic scientist described as “an Old Testament version of hell.”

    Before the asteroid hypothesis took hold, researchers had proposed other, similarly bizarre explanations for the dinosaurs’ demise: gluttony, protracted food poisoning, terminal chastity, acute stupidity, even Paleo-weltschmerz—death by boredom. These theories fell by the wayside when, in 1980, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Luis Alvarez and three colleagues from UC Berkeley announced a discovery in the journal Science. They had found iridium—a hard, silver-gray element that lurks in the bowels of planets, including ours—deposited all over the world at approximately the same time that, according to the fossil record, creatures were dying en masse. Mystery solved: An asteroid had crashed into the Earth, spewing iridium and pulverized rock dust around the globe and wiping out most life forms.

    Their hypothesis quickly gained traction, as visions of killer space rocks sparked even the dullest imaginations. nasa initiated Project Spacewatch to track—and possibly bomb—any asteroid that might dare to approach. Carl Sagan warned world leaders that hydrogen bombs could trigger a catastrophic “nuclear winter” like the one caused by the asteroid’s dust cloud. Science reporters cheered having a story that united dinosaurs and extraterrestrials and Cold War fever dreams—it needed only “some sex and the involvement of the Royal Family and the whole world would be paying attention,” one journalist wrote. News articles described scientists rallying around Alvarez’s theory in record time, especially after the so-called impacter camp delivered, in 1991, the geologic equivalent of DNA evidence: the “Crater of Doom,” a 111-mile-wide cavity near the Mexican town of Chicxulub, on the Yucatán Peninsula. Researchers identified it as the spot where the fatal asteroid had punched the Earth. Textbooks and natural-history museums raced to add updates identifying the asteroid as the killer.
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    While the debate itself is interesting, this observation is probably the take-away point for most readers:

    Ultimately, consensus may be the wrong goal. Adrian Currie, a philosopher of science at Cambridge University, worries that the feverish competition in academia coupled with the need to curry favor with colleagues—in order to get published, get tenure, or get grant money—rewards timid research at the expense of maverick undertakings. He and others argue that controversy produces progress, pushing experts to take on more sophisticated questions. Some of Keller’s most outspoken critics told me that her naysaying has motivated their research. “She keeps us sharp, definitely,” Smit said. Though trading insults is not the mark of dispassionate scientific research, perhaps detached investigation is not ideal, either. It is passion, after all, that drives scientists to dig deeper, defy the majority, and hunt rocks in rural India for 12 hours at a stretch while suffering acute gastrointestinal distress.
    Science isn't about consensus of any kind; consensus is a social tool and the industry of science is very much sensitive to social tools. That's how the grants/patronage/investments keep coming.

    Some questions are simply asked (and answered) too soon. Better technology and advances in other fields eventually remove the mystery. Some questions turn out to be the wrong questions even if useful answers to different questions are the result. Some questions and answers are so bound up with the contemporary social/political/religious climate of the day that even the few solid-seeming results have to be pitched. And there are many questions that science itself can't answer because science doesn't have the tools to address the questions.

    Very interesting article.
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