Factual misconceptions

There’s an old carpenter’s saying, “measure twice before you cut.” Facts and beliefs need more verification than that. A perfect case in point is the extinction of the dinosaurs.

When I was a kid, no one knew what happened to the die-off of the dinosaurs. Then, round about ’59 during the International Geophysical World, revelations appeared in scientific journals about an asteroid hitting the Earth 66,000,000 years ago forming what we know today as the Yucatan basin, named only in 1978 as the Chicxulub Crater. That crater is about 50 miles wide and the impact of the asteroid would have caused catastrophic changes in the atmosphere and sunlight all over the planet — not to mention the pyroclastic explosion area radiating outwards.

OK, you think, “There’s a factual explanation of what happened to the dinosaurs.” Well, not quite… Back in time, over the next 25,000 years or more, the largest dinosaurs did die off. Why did it take so long? Then in the ‘90s scientists started examining the trapped air bubbles in amber (fossilized tree sap) and given that the amber they were testing could be very accurately dated, they found that the level of oxygen on Earth declined slowly over those 25,000 years, meaning the largest dinosaurs’ muscles no longer had the needed oxygen to sustain them. Oh, and pre asteroid hit, oxygen in the atmosphere was 150% higher than today, which would result in completely different muscle capability, size, and speed of a T-Rex, for example. They now estimate that he could run at 30 mph all day — hardly the slow-moving predator we learned about in school.

Anyway, scientists had been 100% convinced that the impact of the asteroid factually caused the demise of the dinosaurs, with a caveat that it took a little longer than they expected. Then along came research that showed that vegetation also declined steadily over those 25,000 years. Then some scientists said over-population caused that change. Others attributed the drop in oxygen levels to volcanic activity across the planet because of the asteroid “trigger.”

Once again, kids are taught these events in school, more or less presented as definite facts.

Oops… now along comes another asteroid impact in that same time period, off the coast of West Africa that they’ve named Nadir. The crater is smaller, only 6 miles wide, but it is 1,400 feet below the surface of the ocean, so who knows how large it actually was. And to make matters worse, an impact that size would have caused massive tidal waves across the planet, destroying 30%+ of coastal areas and vegetation. As a side note, the estimate of the size of that asteroid? Only 1,300 feet wide (a little over four football fields). Oh, and there’s an asteroid we’re tracking named Bennu, our most threatening near asteroid, with a 1 in 1750 chance of hitting Earth. Bennu is the same size as Nadir was.

So, think the puzzle over the demise of the dinosaurs is settled fact? Well, it may be for the largest dinosaurs like T-Rex, but there are 3,500-pound crocodiles off Darwin, Australia, and 3,000-pound Nile Crocs in Lake Rudolf, and 3,500-pounders off the coast of Tanzania… So maybe they are relatives, actual dinosaurs themselves, 66,000,000 years of evolution later? In under 3,000,000 years, we’ve gone from apes to upright humans… dinosaurs have had 66,000,000 years to evolve. Instead of running on land all day at 30 mph, some of the largest dinosaurs maybe took to the water and only have quick, sporadic muscle bursts of power. Then again, 66,000,000 years later, there also are chickens, ostrich, emus, and the entire bird population, which have more in common with dinosaur physiology than mammals…

So, let’s look at that first factual statement that the dinosaurs went extinct… perhaps not. It is time to use common sense and always keep measuring, keep discovering, and evermore an open mind.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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