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See Inside October 2006

Impact From the Deep

Strangling heat and gases emanating from the earth and sea, not asteroids, most likely caused several ancient mass extinctions. Could the same killer-greenhouse conditions build once again?
Andrew Lippman



WEBB CHAPPELL

Philosopher and historian Thomas S. Kuhn has suggested that scientific disciplines act a lot like living organisms: instead of evolving slowly but continuously, they enjoy long stretches of stability punctuated by infrequent revolutions with the appearance of a new species--or in the case of science, a new theory. This description is particularly apt for my own area of study, the causes and consequences of mass extinctions--those periodic biological upheavals when a large proportion of the planet's living creatures died off and afterward nothing was ever the same again.

Since first recognizing these historical mass extinctions more than two centuries ago, paleontologists believed them to have been gradual events, caused by some combination of climate change and biological forces such as predation, competition and disease. But in 1980 the understanding of mass extinctions underwent a Kuhnian revolution when a team at the University of California, Berkeley, led by geologist Walter Alvarez proposed that the famous dinosaur-killing extinction 65 million years ago occurred swiftly, in the ecosystem catastrophe that followed an asteroid collision. Over the ensuing two decades, the idea that a bolide from space could smite a significant segment of life on the earth was widely embraced--and many researchers eventually came to believe that cosmic detritus probably caused at least three more of the five largest mass extinctions. Public acceptance of the notion crystallized with Hollywood blockbusters such as Deep Impact and Armageddon.

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