MEETING WITH THE ALVAREZ'
The following is
an account that occurred on 19 May 1981 at K–TEC II (Cretaceous-Tertiary
Environmental Change II) meeting in Ottawa, Canada. Its day one of the
Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) asteroid impact versus volcano extinctions debate.
Narrated by Dewey McLean. The excerpt presents a wonderful insight into the
nature of the Alvarezes and the importance of the extinction debate at the time.
It also works to explain why the Impact Theory remained so popular for so long.
"Luis Alvarez, Nobel Laureate, glared red–faced at me across the tables that separated us. He and his Berkeley team had just spent half the morning presenting their theory that a giant asteroid slammed into earth 65 million years ago killing most of earth’s life, including the dinosaurs. Their evidence was enrichment of the chemical, iridium, at the geological Cretaceous-Tertiary (K–T) boundary. Some extraterrestrial objects are enriched in iridium, and Alvarez claimed that the iridium was proof of impact. I did not agree. Four months earlier, at the January 1981 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I proposed that the Deccan Traps volcanism in India, one of the greatest episodes of mantle plume volcanism in earth history, had flooded earth's surface with carbon dioxide, perturbed the carbon cycle, triggered the K-T mass extinctions, and released the K-T iridium onto earth’s surface. My research indicated that the iridium was not proof of impact.
Luis Alvarez, who had big stakes riding on his theory, became angry with me. At the first coffee break, he "ushered" me into an isolated corner out of earshot of the others, and demanded to know if I intended to publicly oppose his asteroid impact theory. I told him that I had no choice but to continue with my research. My research was indicating that greenhouse climatic warming can trigger mass extinctions, and our civilization is today facing a possible greenhouse, so I had a moral obligation to continue with, and publish, my research. Alvarez then threatened me with the same fate that had befallen another scientist who had opposed him. “Let me warn you,” Alvarez said. “— — tried to oppose me, and when I finished with him, the scientific community pays no more attention to — —.” “You’ve been warned,” he concluded.
Alvarez had a long history of brutality toward others who stood in the way of his agendas, as witness the fate of J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of our national atomic bomb project after World War II, whose career Alvarez helped to destroy. Alvarez's style of dealing with others is expressed in part by the following quote from Nuel Pharr Davis's Lawrence and Oppenheimer (1968, p. 314):
One of the leaders in the atomic establishment says that he was appalled by an intimation he caught in 1954 of the way anger and frustration had affected Alvarez' mind: "I remember a shocking conversation I had with Alvarez. It was before the Hearings (the Oppenheimer hearings). I want to make it clear that I am not giving his words but trying to reconstruct his reasoning. What he seemed to be telling me was 'Oppenheimer and I often have the same facts on a question and come to opposing decisions—he to one, I to another. Oppenheimer has high intelligence. He can't be analyzing and interpreting the facts wrong. I have high intelligence. I can't be wrong. So with Oppenheimer it must be insincerity, bad faith—perhaps treason?'
That afternoon, Walter Alvarez told me, “Dewey, count them, 24 are with us. You are all alone. If you continue to oppose us, you will wind up being the most isolated scientist on this planet.”
The Alvarezes, it was clear, would deal harshly with anyone whose own research stood in the way of their agendas, even to the point of trying to intimidate them into silence. By 1984, some members of the impact community had reached into the Virginia Tech Department of Geological Sciences where I worked, and nearly destroyed my career, and health.
My departmental Chairperson, a petrologist, who had been highly supportive of my work, and who even wanted to write papers with me, became terrified on learning that a powerful Nobelist, Luis Alvarez, was publicly badmouthing me. He became even more distressed with me when Alvarez's politics, and those of two of Alvarez's main paleontologist supporters were slipped into the department. One, whose research in K-T science has been largely discounted, said that my work was "not going anywhere." The other, who has never written a scientific paper on the K-T extinctions that I am aware of, said that I had spent my career puttering in a "little square mile." Those cheap political shots, although incorrect, hurt me badly. I learned from a friend in the Dean's office that "someone could get fired" because of the K-T scientific debate. I was the only one on campus doing K-T science.
Academic freedom became a meaningless concept for me as my departmental Chairperson and his Assistant Chairperson tried to force me to stop my work on the K-T extinctions. The Chairperson, a petrologist, tried to divert me from K-T research by forcing me into writing up descriptive paleontological materials that had accumulated as part of my graduate research program when I desperately needed time to further develop the theoretical models I had created. I was attempting to articulate a Law of Nature which relates bioevolution and extinction to variations in earth's variable greenhouse, a topic of far greater significance than descriptions of fossils. The Assistant Chairperson, a geochemist, told me that my research should not be done at Virginia Tech, but at a think tank. He told me several times that I should relocate. His close colleague, also a geochemist, told me that Virginia Tech is "not designed to accommodate" my theoretical work. "It does reward your approach," he said. He also stated that I should relocate to "where my kind of work is appreciated." It was under those conditions of terrible harassment that my health failed in 1984 while I was trying to hold up one side of one of the great scientific debates in history, that I had originated."
Source: Russell, D. A., and Rice, G., 1982, K-TEC II: Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinctions and Possible Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Causes: Syllogeus Series 39, National Museums of Canada (Proceedings, May 1981 workshop), 151 pp.