In 1980, the science world was stunned when a maverick team of researchers proposed that a massive meteor strike had wiped the dinosaurs and other fauna from the Earth 66 million years ago. Scientists found evidence for this theory in a "crater of doom" on the Yucatan Peninsula that showed our planet has been the target in a galactic shooting gallery. Seeking to develop "neocatastrophism" even further, Michael R. Rampino adds to this exciting field in Cataclysms, building on the latest findings from leading geoscientists.
Rampino recounts his conversion to the impact hypothesis, describing his visits to meteor-strike sites and his review of the existing geological record. His story enables a richer understanding of the science behind major planetary upheavals and extinction events. The new geology he outlines explicitly rejects nineteenth-century "uniformitarianism", which casts planetary change as gradual and driven by processes we can see at work today. Rampino's new geology offers a cosmic context for Earth's geologic evolution, in which cataclysms from above in the form of comets and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava in flood-basalt eruptions have led to severe changes in the Earth's surface. The new geology sees Earth's position in our solar system and galaxy as the keys to understanding our planet's geology and history of life. The author concludes with a fascinating take on dark matter's potential as a triggering mechanism, considering its role in heating Earth's core and spurring massive volcanism throughout geologic time.
"I like Rampino's book very much: it is a useful, well-written and not overly technical summary of Neocatastrophism since the Alvarez team published the initial work in the early 1980's. The book is well written and paints a lively picture of how work in the area of geoscience is actually done – aided and abetted to good purpose by copious illustrations"
– Niles Eldredge, author of Eternal Ephemera
"As late as 1964, it was hard to find a scientist who believed that crashing meteorites, rather than volcanism, had caused craters on the moon and the earth. In this provocative book, Michael Rampino tantalizes us with his examination of the relationship between astronomy and geology, which he argues could become truly predictive of the past and future. Cataclysms takes us far out, indeed. But if there is one lesson from the history of geology, it is that we should listen to those like Rampino who think outside the box – or even outside the solar system."
– James Powell, author of Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth
"A very readable and broad-ranging inquiry from a personal perspective into the philosophical underpinnings of historical geology. Rampino advances the argument that catastrophism, rather than being dismissible as an arbitrary explanation of major events in the story of life on Earth, is a predictable consequence of the galactic pacing of impacts of large extraterrestrial objects, producing periodic bouts of mass extinctions."
– Dennis Kent, Rutgers University
"In this fast-moving, eminently readable first-hand narrative, Rampino paints a stark contrast between conventional gradualist interpretations of earth history and a new fusion of earth science and astronomy in which powerful forces shape our planet's history with periodic catastrophes from above and within. Highly controversial, Rampino persuasively ties together seemingly unrelated empirical geological discoveries and astrophysical theory into a scientific adventure accessible to nonspecialists as well as experienced scientists."
– Paul E. Olsen, Arthur D. Storke Memorial Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University
"Rampino has pulled off the clever trick of producing a book about geology that will appeal to serious professionals and weekend rockhounds alike – and of course to students and teachers too. His crisp narrative matches the dynamism of the science it explains."
– Dan Fagin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation
1. Catastrophism Versus Gradualism
2. Lyell's Laws
3. The Alvarez Hypothesis
4. Mass Extinctions
5. Kill Curves and Strangelove Oceans
6. Catastrophism and Natural Selection: Charles Darwin Versus Patrick Matthew
7. Impacts and Extinctions: Do They Match Up?
8. The Great Dying: The End-Permian Extinctions
9. Catastrophic Volcanic Eruptions and Extinctions
10. Ancient Glaciers or Impact-Related Deposits?
11. The Shiva Hypothesis: Comet Showers and the Galactic Carousel
12. Geological Upheavals and Dark Matter
Epilogue: What Does It All Mean? A New Geology
Sources and Further Reading
Was the asteroid impact that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs a one-off? Or are other extinctions also linked to impacts? Many scientists are reluctant to accept this idea. In Cataclysms, Rampino argues it's time to cast off the spirit of Lyell that still haunts geological thinking and embrace a new era of catastrophism.
Some history first. The British geologist Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology that went through 12 editions between 1830 to 1875 and influenced generations of geologists. Three of his ideas became axioms:
1. Geological change is slow and gradual and the result of processes we can see in operation today.
2. No need to invoke astronomical influences, geologic forces are intrinsic to the planet.
3. The geologic record does not contain regular patterns influenced by astronomical cycles.
This idea of slow and gradual change is known as uniformitarianism: "the present is the key to the past". Lyell was firmly opposed to the idea of past catastrophes having influenced the planet, which at the time often took the form of attempts to shoehorn the Biblical flood into the picture. Mind you, Lyell's ideas are not free from theological underpinnings either. As Rampino shows, close reading of his work shows that a slow unfolding of geological history was God's plan to shape a world perfectly suited for humans to live in.
Lyell's views won the day. Discontinuities in the fossil record were explained away with the argument that the geological and fossil record are highly incomplete and fragmentary, like missing pages from a book. So, what seems like species suddenly disappearing is just an illusion, perhaps the result of missing fossils, or of periods of geological strata not being deposited. If the record were complete, it would reveal gradual extinction. There. Done and dusted.
These views continued to dominate geology well into the 20th century, and with that in mind, you can understand how the Alvarez paper, which proposed the dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid impact, caused such a splash. Rampino describes this and subsequent work to gather supporting evidence. Impacts leave tell-tale signs due to the extreme forces and temperatures generated upon impact, and Rampino describes these in much more technical detail than The Ends of the World. Luckily the book is accessibly written, as I was able to follow along just fine during these chapters. Plenty of these signs have been found at the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary and by now this impact is a widely accepted fact. But was this a one-off? Rampino argues not. He describes work by geoscientists who have found signs of impacts at other times and tries to link these to other (sometimes minor) extinctions. For a while I felt a bit sceptical: was he another person who suddenly saw asteroids everywhere? But Rampino is clear-headed enough to admit that not all extinctions are impact-related, and highlights the important role of flood basalt eruptions. These episodes of massive catastrophic volcanism were responsible, amongst others, for the end-Permian mass extinction, which wiped out some 95% of species 252 million years ago.
Even so, Rampino favours the impact explanation. He points out the incomplete sampling of the geologic record to detect traces of impact, and the difficulties in finding these. Not every asteroid will be a dino-killer. Size, composition, and location of impact will all influence what traces past impacts have left. Some impact craters, especially older ones, may never be found if they occurred in regions that have since disappeared down the planet's gullet in subduction zones and have been erased. Clearly, there is more work to be done before we can pin other extinctions on impacts as clearly as has been done for the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. But he thinks that if we look harder, we'll find more evidence of this.
Rampino goes a step further though and suggests these impacts occur at roughly 30-million year intervals. These ideas have met with opposition, as many scientists have hypothesised periodic cycles before that have not stood up to scrutiny. Rampino and co. are convinced they are onto something though. They even have a, rather speculative mechanism in mind that, by their own admission, is rather speculative. As our solar system goes around our galaxy (which, as you might know, we have good reason to believe is a disk-shaped spiral galaxy) it oscillates up and down, passing through this disk at intervals of ~30 million years. This would disturb the Oort cloud, a hypothetical band of icy bodies circling the Sun at a great distance, sending comets our way. It's an interesting idea, and certainly one step up from the Nemesis hypothesis, which invoked an as-of-yet undiscovered distant planet as the source of these comets (see The Nemesis Affair for the controversies around that idea).
The really speculative part, which was also recently put forward by Lisa Randall in the book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, is the role given to dark matter. Supposedly, above-mentioned disk also houses dark matter, which would add further gravitational pull disturbing the Oort cloud. But wait, there's more. Some astrophysicists think that dark matter particles could be captured by earth and, once sufficient densities have been reached, could undergo a process of mutual annihilation, producing enormous amounts of heat in the planet's interior, which would trigger rising plumes of hot material that cause flood basalt eruptions.
Obviously, these ideas have met with plenty of opposition. Rampino argues that many geologists are still stuck with the heritage of Lyell's ghost, unwilling to accept any astronomical explanation for geological processes. He thinks we are at the cusp of a revolution in geological thinking, one that gives more credence to catastrophist explanations, from above and below.
I am totally on board with Rampino's call to abandon Lyell's uniformitarianism, but almost 40 years after Alvarez's paper, that's hardly a revolution anymore, is it? I thought the scientific community is already well on its way to accepting catastrophist explanations. Rampino furthermore outlines some interesting ideas in this book, but until we have gathered more data to support or reject them, they are just that. Speculative ideas. If scientific consensus rolled over at every left-field idea that is presented as the next revolution, we'd be nowhere. So I think the criticism and scepticism levelled at these particular ideas is both necessary and deserved. Luckily, Rampino is enough of a scientist to recognize this himself, which certainly helps his credibility. And Cataclysms is sufficiently well written that I'll say:"Sure, I'll entertain your ideas. Let's see what future research brings."