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Sixty-five million years ago a gigantic comet or asteroid as big as Mount Everest slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, creating an explosion on impact equivalent to the detonation of a hundred million hydrogen bombs. It produced a cloud of roiling debris that blackened the sky for months as well as other geologic disasters--and triggered the demise of Tyrannosaurus rex.

We know what happened largely because Walter Alvarez--synthesizing the findings of experts from a variety of scientific fields--has written a gripping story of the decades-long search for the cause of the dinosaurs' extinction. Painstakingly assembling clues from the Italian Apennines and the depths of the Pacific and presenting them with the excitement of a great novel, T. rex and the Crater of Doom is a book of undeniable importance and irresistible appeal by a major figure in contemporary science.

"Engaging and witty. Read Alvarez for and excellent account of how scientists pose questions and seek to solve them."--Scientific American

"First-rate...Alvarez provides the up-close tale of the comet or asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs."--San Francisco Chronicle

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
When Nobel prize-winning physicist Louis Alvarez and his geophysicist son Walter announced that they had discovered evidence of a giant meteor that slammed into Earth 65 million years ago, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs, they were met with much fanfare from the popular press and skepticism from the scientific community. The Alvarezes were vindicated in 1991 when a huge impact crater was discovered on the Yucatn Peninsula, and the possible connection with dinosaur extinction is becoming more widely accepted. After a vivid description imagining the global devastation that would be caused by such an impact, Alvarez offers a first-person account of the discovery. It's a nicely told and well-written tale of scientific discovery, and though he occasionally comes across as a bit smug, Alvarez is quite generous in crediting objectors for helping show the direction to improve and refine the theory with further research. This informal, readable book is appropriate for high school readers on up, and the subject has strong popular appeal. Amy Brunvand, Univ. of Utah Lib., Salt Lake City
Kirkus Reviews
An explanation of the end of the dinosaurs, by the Berkeley geologist who helped promulgate the theory.

At first widely doubted, the idea is now gospel: Sixty-five million years ago, a comet or asteroid about the size of Mt. Everest slammed into the Yucatán not far from present-day Cancún, wiping out at least half of the species on earth. Alvarez was part of the team that discovered the first evidence of this impact, which caused an unimaginably immense explosion. Some species may have been largely eliminated immediately; others disappeared more gradually. This collision can be proven because of the immense impact crater (discovered in 1950) and dated because of the otherwise anomalous appearance of the rare element iridium (a byproduct of the explosion) at a certain stratum in core samples retrieved from the ocean floor. The iridium, in lesser amounts, can be found worldwide, notably at the Gubbio site in Italy; its presence testifies to the terrible cloud that obscured the sun after the impact, killing plants and the species that subsisted on them—as well as the meat-eating animals that preyed on the plant- eaters. While the dinosaurs could not survive the upheaval, small burrowing animals, aquatic life, and birds (thought by some scientists to be related to dinosaurs) had a better chance for survival, since they could more easily hide or flee during the dark time. Alvarez does a wonderful job of explaining these events, describing the expeditions into the rough backcountry of the Yucatán in search of evidence, the growing excitement as proof of the controversial thesis emerged, and the acceptance of the theory by the scientific establishment

Appealing and accessible, an excellent introduction to the subject.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375702105
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/28/1998
  • Edition description: VINTAGE
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Alvarez is professor of geology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Read an Excerpt

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 1997, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers.



But it was too late. At that moment the rock quivered and trembled beneath them. The great rumbling noise, louder than ever before, rolled in the ground and echoed in the mountains. Then with searing suddenness there came a great red flash. Far beyond the eastern mountains it leapt into the sky and splashed the lowering clouds with crimson. In that valley of shadow and cold deathly light it seemed unbearably violent and fierce. Peaks of stone and ridges like notched knives sprang out in staring black against the uprushing flame in Golgoroth. Then came a great crack of thunder.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings


Try to imagine a different world—different from the one we live in. Not wildly different, like the settings of science fiction stories which take place on airless planets or in giant spaceships. We are looking for a world much like our own, but different in subtle ways. J.R.R. Tolkien described such a world in The Lord of the Rings—with mountains, swamps, and plains like ours, but with a slightly different geography—much like Europe, butnot quite the same. Tolkien's "Third Age of Middle Earth" has familiar inhabitants like humans and horses, but other creatures that we know well, like dogs and cats, are missing. Middle Earth also has unfamiliar inhabitants—dwarves, elves, wizards, and hobbits. It is terrorized by the merciless, sharp-clawed goblins called ores. Tolkien's world seems ancestral, or perhaps alternative to ours.

The world we seek is reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth. It has mountains, deserts, forests, and oceans, arranged in a geography that is something like our Earth, yet noticeably different. It has rivers and canyons, plateaus and sand dunes. It has cloudbursts in the mountains, and glowing sunsets in the clear air after a thunderstorm. Some of the inhabitants seem familiar, though not exactly like the ones we know. Evergreen trees and deciduous trees shade the landscape, and the streams are full of fish. But the ground is bare of grass, and the animals look different. Little furry ones are recognizable as mammals. But there are also giant creatures, some placidly grazing while others hunt, with claws as terrifying as those of any orc in Middle Earth.

This world is different from ours, but it is familiar through museum reconstructions, paintings, and films. For this is not the Third Age of Middle Earth, but rather the Third Period of Middle Life. Geologists use the term Mesozoic, or Middle Life, for the Age of Dinosaurs. The third period of the Mesozoic was the Cretaceous, following the Triassic and the Jurassic periods.

More precisely, the world we are imagining was the very end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. It was ancestral to our modern world, with a geography that was different but still familiar, because continental drift since then has moved the Earth's land masses around but has not completely rearranged them. India had not yet collided with Asia to thrust up the Himalayas, but there were already mountains in western North America. Sea level was higher than today, and part of the interior of North America was covered by a shallow sea.

Not only was that world ancestral to ours, it was in some sense alternative as well. For it was a stable world. Despite the violent hunting of the carnivorous dinosaurs and the oft-depicted dramatic battles between Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, life patterns and the inhabitants themselves had changed only slowly during the previous 150 million years. The dinosaurs were very successful large animals and shared their world with equally successful small animals and with plants of all kinds. There is every reason to believe that if it had remained undisturbed, the Mesozoic world could have continued indefinitely, with the slightly evolved descendants of the dinosaurs dominating a world in which humans never appeared.

But the Mesozoic world did not remain undisturbed. It ended abruptly, and with no warning, 65 million years ago. Vast numbers of highly successful animal and plant species suddenly disappeared in a mass extinction, leaving no descendants. This break in the history of life is so impressive that geologists use it to define the boundary between the Cretaceous, or last period of the Mesozoic, and the Tertiary, or first period of the Cenozoic. Today's world is populated with descendants of the survivors of the mass extinction that ended the Cretaceous world.

Looking back across the abyss of time which separates us from the Cretaceous, we can somehow feel nostalgia for a long-lost world, one which had its own rhythm and harmony. We feel a special sadness when we think about its plants and animals, fish and birds—for most of the Cretaceous animals and plants are irretrievably lost. We can even feel some sorrow as we imagine the sun setting over a western ocean, painting the clouds with orange and red and yellow and gold, on the last evening of that world. For the Cretaceous world is gone forever, and its ending was sudden and horrible.


Doom was coming out of the sky, in the form of an enormous comet or asteroid—we are still not sure which it was. Probably ten kilometers across, traveling tens of kilometers a second, its energy of motion had the destructive capability of a hundred million hydrogen bombs. If an asteroid, it was an inert, crater-scarred rock, dark and sinister, invisible until the last moment before it struck. If a comet, it was a ball of dirty ice, spewing out gases boiled off by the heat of the Sun, and it announced impending doom with a shimmering head and a brilliant tail splashed across half the sky, illuminating the night, and finally visible even in the daytime as Armageddon approached. Let us think of it as a comet, remembering that perhaps it was an asteroid instead. Comets have been mistakenly interpreted by humans in times past as harbingers of doom, foretelling famine, plague, and destruction. Although no humans were there to witness the giant comet of 65 million years ago, in this case it really did portend disaster.

The Solar System abounds in comets and asteroids, some even bigger than the one which was nearing Earth on that day 65 million years ago. Most asteroids remain in a belt between Mars and Jupiter, and most comets orbit the Sun far beyond distant Pluto. Occasionally, however, an asteroid has its orbit deflected by Jupiter's gravitational pull, or a comet orbit is altered by the gravitational tug of a passing star. A few of these asteroids and comets are diverted into orbits which cross that of the Earth. An impact occurs when such an object intersects the Earth's orbit just as Earth happens to be at the crossing point. This is what is going on every time you see a shooting star flashing across the night sky. Those streaks of light are due to tiny fragments of comets or asteroids burning up through friction in the Earth's atmosphere. Somewhat larger objects, the size of a fist, are too big to burn up completely in the atmosphere, but are slowed down enough to survive their impact on the Earth's surface. These objects are the meteorites displayed in museums and studied by geologists interested in extraterrestrial rocks.

Large impacts can also happen, and they were frequent in the early history of the solar system, as witnessed by the ancient, crater-scarred face of the Moon. But large impacts are rare nowadays, because the debris that was abundant in the early solar system has been swept up by the planets, large Earth-crossing comets and asteroids are now rare, and Earth is a very small target. To see how small, look at Venus just after sunset, when it is the "evening star." Venus is the size of the Earth, and from our distance it is a tiny, although brilliant, dot in the sky—a very difficult target to hit.

Earth is protected, therefore, by the fact that large comets and asteroids rarely come into the inner Solar System, and those that do are unlikely to hit something as small as our planet. So we can imagine the giant comet of 65 million years ago coming close to the Earth again and again, over a period of centuries or millenia, as it orbited the Sun—sometimes far from Earth, sometimes close enough to put on a spectacular display in the night sky. A set of near misses like this must take place every now and then in Earth history, but usually the comet hits the Sun or another planet, or is deflected out of the inner Solar System. In this particular case, however, there came a time when the invader's orbit intersected that of Earth just as both were approaching the intersection point. This time there would be no escape. The comet was aimed toward the southern part of North America—toward the shallow seas and coastal plains which are now the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.


It is very difficult to appreciate the impact that was about to occur, because such an extreme event is far beyond our range of experience—for which we can be most grateful! One can write down the measures of what happened—an object about 10 km in diameter slammed into the Earth at a velocity of perhaps 30 km/sec. But these measures only acquire meaning when we try to visualize them, or make analogies to help our understanding. How can we imagine a comet 10 km in diameter? Its cross section about matches the city of San Francisco. If it could be placed gently on the surface of the Earth it would stand higher than Mount Everest, which only reaches about 9 km above sea level. Its volume would be comparable to the volume of all the buildings in the entire United States. It was a big rock, or a big ice ball, but not of a scale beyond our comprehension.

What turned it into a cataclysmic weapon was its velocity. The estimated impact velocity of 30 km/sec is 1,000 times faster than the speed of a car on the highway and 150 times faster than a jet airliner. It is about 6 times faster than the speed of seismic waves in rock. When a collision takes place at velocities this high, our experience is not a useful guide, and rock materials do not behave in the ways we are used to. Instead, a shock wave is produced—a kind of sonic boom in the rock. The shock wave from such an impact crushes and compresses the impactor and target rock so intensely that after the shock passes, the decompressing rock will fly apart, or melt, or even vaporize. The concept of rocks instantaneously boiling away to vapor conveys a gut feeling for the extraordinary and violent conditions during an impact.

Scientists immediately ask about the energy of the approaching object, because energy is Nature's currency, a measure of the ability to move things around and bring about changes. Nature runs a kind of automatic bookkeeping system for energy transfers, requiring that the energy of motion of the incoming comet be fully accounted for in all the kinds of damage done during the impact. When we do the bookkeeping, we find that the energy of motion of the comet just before impact was equivalent to the explosion of 100 million megatons of TNT, sufficient to vaporize the comet in about 1 second and to blow out a hole in the ground which was briefly 40 km deep but quickly collapsed into a broader, shallower crater 150-200 km across. To get a feeling for this quantity of energy, keep in mind that one large hydrogen bomb has a yield of about 1 megaton of TNT, and that the total nuclear arsenal of the world at the peak of the Cold War was about 10,000 such bombs. The [10.sup.8]-megaton impact of the comet which ended the Cretaceous was therefore equivalent to the explosion of 10,000 times the entire nuclear arsenal of the world (although the impact explosion was not nuclear).

Returning to the 10-km-wide comet as it approached the Earth at 30 km/sec, we can get a feeling for how fast the event happened. An airliner flies at an altitude of about 10 km, so imagine a plane unfortunate enough to be in the way of the incoming comet. In an instant the airplane would be smashed like a bug by the onrushing body. One-third of a second later the front of the comet, carrying the insignificant aircraft wreckage, would hit the ground, generating a blinding flash of light and initiating shock waves in the comet and the ground, and after another 1/3 second the back end would be passing below ground level. By one or two seconds after the loss of the airplane, there would be a huge, growing, incandescent hole in the ground and an expanding fireball of vaporized rock, and debris ejected by the explosion would be clearing the atmosphere on its way to points around the globe. Earth would suffer cataclysmic damage in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

Now that we have some sense of the scale of the impact that ended the Cretaceous world, let us look at our current, imperfect understanding of just what happened.


The comet approaching Earth 65 million years ago first encountered the tenuous air many kilometers above the surface. About 95 percent of the atmosphere lies below an altitude of 30 km, so depending on the velocity and the angle at which the impactor approached the surface, it would have taken only a second or two to penetrate most of the atmosphere. The air in front of the comet, unable to get out of the way, was violently compressed, generating one of the most colossal sonic booms ever heard on this planet. Compression heated the air almost instantaneously until it reached a temperature 4 or 5 times that of the Sun, generating a searing flash of light during that one-second traverse of the atmosphere.

At the instant of contact with the Earth's surface, where the Yucatan Peninsula now lies, two shock waves were triggered. One shock wave plowed forward into the bedrock, passing through a three-kilometer-thick layer of limestone near the surface, and down into the granitic crust beneath. The onrushing shock wave drove forward through the bedrock, crushing shut all cracks and pore spaces and destroying much of the orderly crystal structure of minerals.

Meanwhile, a second shock wave flashed backward into the onrushing comet. Reflecting off the back of the impactor, it tore apart the trailing edge of the comet. In the second or so it took for this to happen, the comet ceased to be recognizable as a spherical body. With its enormous momentum driving it forward, the comet penetrated deep into the Yucatan bedrock, forcing open a huge hole and molding itself into an incandescent coating on the inside of the growing hole, which was now opening out into an expanding crater. But the comet coating on the inside of the crater did not last more than a moment before it was mostly vaporized, along with much of the original target rock.

As the rapidly vaporizing comet wreckage was carried forward into the growing crater, the shock wave curved back up to the surface and spewed out ejecta—melted blobs and solid fragments of target rock—upward and outward on high, arching trajectories that flung them through the thin outer fringes of the atmosphere and beyond. Falling back to Earth within a few hundred kilometers of the rim of the crater, this debris built up a vast blanket of ejecta.

Even this did not exhaust the pyrotechnic potential of the impacting comet. The huge cloud of vaporized rock generated at ground zero was driven outward by its own heat and pressure in a colossal fireball. The explosion of a nuclear bomb—tiny by comparison—produces a hot-gas fireball which flashes outward to a diameter of a kilometer or so, until it can push no farther against the atmospheric pressure, and then floats upward to an altitude of 10 km where it spreads out into a mushroom cloud. The incomparably greater fireball of the Yucatan impact overwhelmed the atmosphere, blowing right through the entire blanket of air, expanding and accelerating out into space and launching particles of rock into trajectories which carried them far around the Earth before they fell back to the ground.

And still the fireworks continued. Even as the scorching fireball of rock vapor blew away into outer space, it was followed by a second fireball, not as hot, but almost as dramatic. For about three kilometers down from the surface, the Yucatan was covered with a thick layer of limestone. Limestone is Nature's way of storing carbon dioxide gas as a solid, by combining it with calcium. Shocked limestone suddenly releases its stored [CO.sub.2], and in an impact as large as this, enormous quantities of this gas were almost instantaneously released like popping the cork on a colossal bottle of champagne. Still more rock debris was carried aloft in this second exploding gas ball as it, too, blew through the atmosphere and into outer space.

Meanwhile, the expanding crater had reached its maximum depth of perhaps 40 km. This hemispherical "transient cavity" was far too deep to be supported by the relatively weak rock of the Earth's crust, and the center began to rise, even as the perimeter continued to expand. While the steep outer walls collapsed in giant landslides, deep rocks from the mantle, below the granitic crust, rebounding after the passage of the shock wave, rose upward faster and faster into a central peak like those preserved in many craters on the Moon. The central peak of the Yucatan crater was so large and high that it in turn collapsed downward, driving outward into a set of ringlike ridges which left a pattern resembling a bull's-eye imprinted on the Earth to mark the site of this cataclysmic event.


In the zone where bedrock was melted or vaporized, no living thing could have survived. Even out to a few hundred kilometers from ground zero, the destruction of life must have been nearly total. Sterilized by the intense light from shock-compressed air and from the fireball of rock vapor, crushed when pores and cracks in rock were slammed shut by the passing shock wave, and bombarded by the falling debris of the ejecta blanket, little or nothing was left alive in this central area.

Out to a few thousand kilometers, into the area of modern Mexico and the United States, the Yucatan impact sent dramatic messengers of destruction. Animals living just over the horizon first witnessed a flash of light in the sky, then a last moment of calm. Then, as the ground began to shake uncontrollably from the passing seismic waves, the sky itself turned lethal. Beginning with a faint glow, the sky grew more and more intensely red, passing into incandescence, growing brighter and brighter, hotter and hotter. Soon the Earth's surface itself became an enormous broiler—cooking, charring, igniting, immolating all trees and all animals which were not sheltered under rocks or in holes. This fearsome phenomenon was produced by ballistic ejecta particles blasted into space by the impact, which were now falling back to Earth, reentering the atmosphere, heating up through friction with the air, and transmitting that heat to Earth as infrared light. Only places which happened to be shielded by thick storm clouds would have avoided this lethal heat. Entire forests were ignited, and continent-sized wildfires swept across the lands. The ejecta particles had barely fallen to Earth and the lethal, incandescent sky returned to normal, when the air was blackened by rising plumes of soot from fires which were consuming the forests and removing the oxygen from the atmosphere.

Even as the forests were set ablaze, another horror was approaching the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. The impact occurred in the shallow water and coastal plains which flanked the Gulf, but it produced a huge disturbance in the waters of the deep Gulf, through seismic shaking, submarine landslides triggered by the seismic waves, and by the splashdown of the ejecta blanket. The result was a gigantic tsunami—a massive wave perhaps a kilometer high, which spread outward across the Gulf of Mexico at terrific speed. Everyday waves do not disturb the bottom of deep seas like the Gulf, which are the quietest, calmest places on Earth. But the impact tsunami was so enormous that its keel swept across the bottom of the Gulf, digging channels into the fine sediments of the sea floor, and mixing them with the impact debris which had just fallen. As the tsunami front reached the shallow water of Florida and the Gulf Coast, it was pushed up higher and higher into a wall of water that towered above the shoreline. As this deluge crashed onto the coast, it not only ripped apart whole forests, but it shook the continental margin so violently that huge volumes of sediment were mobilized into submarine landslides which flowed down into the deep Gulf, burying the impact debris which had only just fallen.

Within hours of the impact, most of Mexico and the United States must have been reduced to a desolate wasteland of the most appalling, agonizing destruction. Where only the day before there had been fertile landscapes, full of animals and plants of all kinds, now there was a vast, smoldering netherworld, mercifully hidden from view by black clouds of roiling smoke.

Farther away from the Yucatan, the effects were less dramatic. The giant tsunami was largely confined to the enclosed Gulf of Mexico and could not reach Asia, Africa, or Europe. Ejecta particles rained down around the world, but fewer particles traveled to more remote areas, so the firestorms may not have been as intense as in North America. In contrast to the largely sterilized regions close to ground zero, distant continents may have escaped the direct effects of the Yucatan event. Tragedy would unfold more slowly in these remote areas, through the secondary effects of the impact.


Terrible as the immediate, direct effects of the impact were in the surrounding region, they probably would not by themselves have caused the disappearance forever of whole families of plants and animals, because survivors in remote regions would have repopulated the devastated regions in the years to come. And yet an enormous mass extinction did follow the impact, and we now understand some of the longer-term global disasters which were secondary results of the impact. Let us review these Horsemen of the Apocalypse in their order of appearance.

Within days of the impact, the immediate effects had died down. The fires were probably going out, the tsunami had spent its main strength against the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and violent winds were settling down. But the Earth was turning cold and dark. Vast quantities of fine dust had burst through the atmosphere in the fireball and the dust was now settling through the upper atmosphere around the world, blocking the sunlight. The land became so dark that you could not have seen your hand in front of your face, and this darkness and the accompanying cold probably lasted for a few months, until finally most of the dust had settled to the ground.

But after the return of light, the climate went to the opposite extreme. Two greenhouse gases—water vapor and carbon dioxide—had been released in vast quantities from the site of the impact. The water vapor was probably removed quickly from the atmosphere as rain which washed out the dust. Carbon dioxide can only be removed slowly from the air, and now it trapped the heat from the Sun, raising temperatures to sweltering levels. It was probably thousands of years before the carbon dioxide was back to normal levels.

Not only were water and dust raining out of the atmosphere, but there was also a devastating acid rain. Some of this may have been sulfuric acid derived from sulfur in anhydrite, a sedimentary rock interbedded with the limestones of the Yucatan. But much was nitric acid, originating from the atmosphere itself. The air we breathe is about 20 percent oxygen and most of the rest is nitrogen. Normally these occur as two-atom molecules of oxygen, [O.sub.2], and of nitrogen, [N.sub.2]. Nitrogen forms very stable molecules which are tightly bonded together. Only when the air is strongly heated are the [N.sub.2] molecules broken up, allowing some of the nitrogen to combine with oxygen as molecules of nitrous oxide, NO. This happened on a grand scale during the impact event when the air was heated by shock waves, by the fireball, and by the friction of reentering ejecta. Vast quantities of nitrous oxide were formed, which reacted with oxygen and water vapor in the atmosphere to form nitric acid, [HNO.sub.3], which rained out of the sky, killing plants and animals and dissolving rocks.

A world first dark and frozen, then deadly hot, a world poisoned by acid and soot. This was the global aftermath of the Yucatan impact. We wonder how anything could survive this environmental apocalypse. Yet there were survivors, and their descendants populate the world today.


By the time the physical devastation caused by the impact had faded, years or centuries after the event, Earth's biosphere was changed forever. Whole groups of plants and animals had disappeared, never to be seen again. By one estimate, half of the genera living at the time of the impact perished. This was one of five great biological mass extinctions we know of in Earth's past. It is very difficult to learn what caused the loss of any particular group of plants or animals. Some reasonable inferences have been made, but in many cases we will probably never know with certainty. It is easier to construct the list of victims and survivors.

Best known of the victims, of course, are the dinosaurs. T. rex and the other huge carnivores perished, as did the herbivorous dinosaurs, as well as their relatives who swam, like the mosasaurs, or flew, like the pterodactyls. Most paleontologists now consider that modern birds are very closely related to the dinosaurs which, in this sense, did survive the end of the Cretaceous. Yet recently discovered fossils are revealing that birds were nearly wiped out as well.

The loss of the dinosaurs is probably related to their position in the food chain, with herbivorous dinosaurs eating vegetation and carnivorous dinosaurs eating herbivores and perhaps small mammals. During the months of cold and darkness cast by the pall of dust in the atmosphere, plants would wither and the herbivores would starve, and so would the carnivores in their turn. Large animals are never abundant, especially top carnivores, so they would have been particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Many smaller land animals survived, including mammals, as well as reptiles such as crocodiles and turtles. No one really understands why these animals escaped extinction. Being smaller and thus more numerous would increase their chances of survival, and this may help explain the survival of birds as well.

Leaf fossils demonstrate that land plants also suffered a mass extinction. We expect that individual trees and bushes alive at the time of the impact would have perished in the cold and the dark. But seeds and roots should have allowed most species to reappear after the darkness ended. The extinction of many kinds of plants has not been explained.

Turning to the less familiar marine realm, we find that the impact spelled the end of the coiled-shell ammonites—relatives of the chambered nautilus—which had flourished in the seas for hundreds of millions of years. Lesser known groups of invertebrates perished wholesale at the level of genera and families. Perhaps they were the victims of food-chain collapse, or perhaps their shells were dissolved in acidified seawater, but no one knows.

Still less familiar are the microscopic single-celled plants and animals that float in the surface waters of the ocean. These tiny organisms were enormously abundant but suffered nearly complete extinction. The microscopic photosynthetic algae and the single-celled predators called foraminifera produced vast numbers of tiny platelets and miniature shells that record the mass extinction with unusual clarity. Probably vulnerable to darkness and acid, they were the base of the marine food chain, and their loss was devastating to marine animals that depended on them. Both foraminifera and photosynthetic algae were at grave peril, with many or most species perishing, but in both cases a few species survived and left descendants which abound in the oceans today.

The sudden loss of half the genera of plants and animals on Earth is a catastrophe almost incomprehensible to us. It truly marked the end of a world. And yet, the darkness eventually faded, the heat died down, and the acids were neutralized. Survivors there were, and they found themselves in a new world, tragically changed, but with boundless opportunities for the future. For 150 million years dinosaurs had been the large land animals of the planet while mammals were confined to the role of small animals. With the disappearance of the dinosaurs, there were new opportunities for mammals, and evolution rapidly produced large ones. Our nostalgia for the lost world of the Cretaceous is tempered when we realize that it was a world that held no place for us—for large mammals. Our horror at the destruction caused by the impact that ended the Cretaceous is eased by the understanding that only because of this catastrophe did evolution embark on a course which, 65 million years later, has led to us. We are the beneficiaries of Armageddon.


Tolkien's story of Middle Earth is, of course, pure fantasy. It has its own internal logic, but magical things take place in Middle Earth which could never happen in the real world. It is a wonderful story, but in order to enjoy it, you must suspend your sense of disbelief. It is not in any way intended to recount events which ever really occurred.

The story of the impact on the Yucatan which ended the age of the dinosaurs has a different purpose. It is intended to be a reconstruction, as accurate as possible, of historical events which really did happen. It asks not that its readers suspend disbelief, but that they do exactly the opposite—that they bring to it their most critical facilities, that they search it for flaws, that they test it in any way they can and try to improve its accuracy.

But how can we possibly reconstruct events which happened 65 million years ago, long before any human being was around to observe what happened and record it for posterity? We can reconstruct these events because the history of the Earth is recorded in the Earth itself. Most of the history of our planet is written in rocks. Rocks are the key to Earth history, because solids remember but liquids and gases forget. Retrieving these long-lost memories is the business of geologists and paleontologists, of people who have chosen to be the historians of the Earth.

Understanding how we decipher a great historical event written in the book of rocks may be as interesting as the event itself. Uncovering the extinction that ended the Cretaceous has been a saga of patient detective work, of high adventure in remote parts of the world, of lonely intellectual struggle, of long periods of frustration ended by sudden breakthroughs, of friendships made or lost, of the embarrassment of public mistakes and retractions, of the exhilaration of discovery, and of delight in a wonderful emerging story. This is what we will explore in the rest of this book, as we see how the story of the Yucatan impact was uncovered and pieced together.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Armageddon 3
Ch. 2 Ex Libro Lapidum Historia Mundi 19
Ch. 3 Gradualist versus Catastrophist 43
Ch. 4 Iridium 59
Ch. 5 The Search for the Impact Site 82
Ch. 6 The Crater of Doom 106
Ch. 7 The World after Chicxulub 130
Notes 147
Index 171
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First Chapter


Most national movements and parties that managed to translate their historical and cultural aspirations into political terms in the late 1800s and early 1900s viewed themselves as fighting not only for their nation's liberation from a foreign yoke, for its unification, or for the return of its separated brethren but also for protection from assimilation, loss of identity, and cultural annihilation. Zionism was also of this nature. Physical danger, which was a real threat to Eastern European Jews, was not the only peril. The danger of a loss of identity--the result of a modernization process that had begun to spread to Eastern Europe as well--was even more serious. A seemingly paradoxical situation had arisen. Although liberalism had suffered serious setbacks in Germany, Austria, and France--as a result it appeared that the Jews' emancipation was in jeopardy--the assimilation process continued at full strength. Most Jews continued willingly to pay the price for emancipation and gave up their national identity without difficulty, even when it was perfectly clear that this provided no solution to anti-Semitism. Despite the fact that society as a whole increasingly opposed their absorption even as individuals, cultural assimilation continued. The process of loss of identity was very rapid in Central and Western Europe, but signs of it also began to appear in the east, in the Russian empire. It could easily be supposed that in a short time assimilation would gain as much ground there as it had in Western Europe.

history found itself in a situation in which the traditional frameworks that had held it together for so long were disintegrating, and whose destiny had begun to depend on the personal decision of each member, was accompanied by another, no less important phenomenon: a loathing of the diaspora. No one was more disgusted with their people, more contemptuous of its weaknesses and its way of life, than the founders. These stern individuals, who permitted no self-indulgence, described exiled Jews in terms that at times resembled those of the most rabid anti-Semites. Aaron David Gordon, for instance, wrote that the Jewish people was "broken and crushed ... sick and diseased in body and soul." This great disability, he said, was due to the fact that

Indeed, said Gordon, "It is not our fault that we have reached this point, but that is the fact: that is what exile is like." This destructive criticism was very widespread at the time of the Second Aliyah and, no less than the danger of pogroms in Russia, was fundamental to Zionism.

played a powerful role in Jewish life: on one hand the instinctive urge to save one's skin and ensure one's economic existence by leaving Eastern Europe for the New World, and on the other hand the attraction of movements with a strong universal and humanistic component, bringing the promise of full emancipation: socialism and liberalism. Emigration to America was a response to the blows anti-Semitism inflicted, a consequence of modernization. The only barrier Zionism could place before this mass exodus was a rejection of the diaspora as such: not merely a rejection of the European diaspora, where the Jewish ability to survive had disappeared, but a total opposition to the concept of life in the diaspora. It was therefore necessary to demonstrate that Jewish life outside Eretz Israel was in its death throes. The Jews, wrote Gordon, were "a people hovering between life and death," and if they had not yet vanished from the face of the earth, it was only because "the body of the people of Israel existed in a mummified state." But now that "the walls of the pyramid have been breached ... the body has begun to crumble, and the fragments are dispersed in all directions." Thus, "In exile, we do not and cannot have a living culture, rooted in real life and developing within itself. We have no culture because we have no life, because the life that exists in exile is not our life."

Second Aliyah. In 1915 Ben-Gurion repeated Gordon's statement almost word for word: "We cannot develop a normal and comprehensive culture in exile, not because we do not have the right but because we are physically and spiritually dependent on the alien environment that consciously or unconsciously imposes its culture and way of life upon us." Thus, from the point of view of Zionist activism, there could be no compromise with exile. "Not to condemn exile means to perpetuate it," wrote Berl Katznelson at the height of the Second World War. In this connection he mentioned an article by Yosef Aharonowitz, one of Hapo'el Hatza'ir's founders, written a few years earlier. Aharonowitz, wrote Katznelson in December 1940, "contrasted Eretz Israel with the diaspora, not because he thought Eretz Israel could rescue all the Jews of the diaspora but because he saw that destruction was coming over the diaspora, and only the remnant of Israel in Eretz Israel would be rescued, and that would become the Jewish people." A hatred of the diaspora and a rejection of Jewish life there were a kind of methodological necessity for Zionism.

by Jew haters of the school of social anti-Semitism fell on fertile soil here. Typical of this way of thinking was an article that appeared in Ha'ahdut in 1912.

anti-Semitic literature, and they underlie the claim that modern anti-Semitism is not an expression of religious or racial hatred but an attempt to root out parasitic elements that prevent the proper functioning of social systems. Thus, anti-Semitism has been represented as a defense of the working masses against their exploiters, and hence as a legitimate political phenomenon. It has been seen by many as a manifestation that does not necessarily contradict universal, humanistic, or egalitarian values. At the beginning of the century, the views of those who sought Jewish political independence and those who sought to purge their countries of the Jewish presence were often quite similar.

diaspora, however, was that all hopes and efforts focused on Palestine. The country was regarded as the sole center of not only Jewish existence but also Jewish history, the source of inspiration and the elixir of life. As with all national movements, history played a decisive role in Zionism. As with all national movements, Zionist interpretations were very selective: not only was the favorite period always that of the kings and Maccabees, but it sometimes seemed that between the far-off days of independence and the beginning of the return to the land at the end of the nineteenth century, very few events worthy of mention had taken place in the nation's life. Not only was Jewish history in exile deemed to be unimportant, but the value of living Jews, Jews of flesh and blood, depended entirely on their use as raw material for national revival. The Jewish communities scattered across Central and Eastern Europe were important to the founders chiefly as a source of pioneers. They were considered to have no value in themselves.

the order of priorities: it was not the rescue of Jews as such that topped Berl Katznelson's order of priorities but the organization of the Zionist movement in Europe. In December 1940 Katznelson lashed out at Polish Jewry in areas conquered by the Soviet Union because they were unable to cope with the situation and "unable to fight even for a few days for small things like Hebrew schools. In my opinion," wrote Katznelson, "that is a terrible tragedy, no less than the trampling of Jewry by Hitler's jackboots." Indeed, this was the founders' order of priorities from the beginning, and the tragedy of the Jews in the Second World War could not change it. Zionism was an act of rebirth in the most literal sense of the term. Thus, every event in the nation's life was evaluated according to a single criterion: the degree to which it contributed to Zionism.

astounding. On the eve of his death, the Kishinev pogroms of 1903 held a more important place in Katznelson's thinking than the Holocaust. In a famous series of lectures on the history of the labor movement in Palestine, given in the summer of 1944, Katznelson dwelled at length on the pogroms at Kishinev on the reactions of Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), the national poet, on the historian Simon Dubnow (1860 1941), on Ahad Ha'am (pseudonym of Asher Zvi Ginzberg, 1856-1927), the father of "spiritual Zionism," and on the heroic action of the youth Pinhas Dashevsky, who attacked one of the main instigators of the pogroms. Katznelson equated Dashevsky with Yosef Trumpeldor, the legendary hero killed by Arab guerrillas in 1920 during the battle for Tel Hai, the Jewish settlement on the Lebanese border. Dashevsky's deed, he said, was "the first revolutionary manifestation of Jewish national consciousness." This youth was particularly exemplary because "he understood the true nature of Zionism and adhered to it throughout his life." Judging from volume 11 of Katznelson's Writings, the story of Pinhas Dashevsky had far greater importance for the ideologist of the labor movement than the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In June 1944 one could not yet know the place the revolt would have in the history of Zionism, but at that time--a whole year after the destruction of Polish Jewry--every child in Jewish Palestine knew about the effect of the Kishinev pogroms on national revival; the Kishinev pogroms had released the mechanism of the Second Aliyah. "Nevertheless," said Katznelson, "this event of Kishinev was central in Jewish history. It was decisive for Zionism." Thus, one is hardly surprised to learn that in 1944, as in 1924 or 1914, the main problems on the movement's agenda remained the same: immigration and maintaining the movement's solidarity. When Katznelson spoke of a "disaster," he meant the internal difficulties of the labor movement, the "disaster of the Gdud Ha'avoda" or the "disaster of defection that befell Hashomer Hatza'ir," not the events taking place in Europe under Nazi rule.

the Jews' distress, and Eretz Israel was more than one night's shelter. In this matter, there were always two schools of thought in Zionism. The first, which can be described as the liberal or utilitarian school, viewed the Jews' gathering in Eretz Israel as a solution to physical and economic insecurity in Eastern Europe on one hand and as a response to liberalism's failure in Western Europe on the other. The second school viewed immigration to Eretz Israel as the culmination of Jewish history and the rescue of the nation as a historical entity. From the point of view of the first school, a Jew who clung to exile endangered his property or his person. The Jew--this was the logical conclusion to be drawn from the outbreak of anti-Semitism in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair--carried anti-Semitism about with him like a piece of personal luggage. Jew hatred was an inseparable part of Jewish existence, and now there was no longer any reason to assume it would disappear with emigration to America. If emancipation had failed in France, there was no reason to suppose that it would succeed on the other side of the ocean. Thus, a concern for the safety of each individual made it imperative to find a territorial solution to the Jewish problem, which would ensure the nation first self-rule and later political independence. Zionism was the most rational solution, an empirical solution suited to the thinking of liberals steeped in Western culture such as Herzl and Nordau.

took root in the founders' ideology; this was not the thinking of groups of young activists who came from areas where tribal nationalism ruled unchallenged. From their point of view, Zionism's justification was not that it provided the most rational or effective solution to the Jews' need for security. The question of security, apart from their sense of shame at Jews' inability to defend their lives and honor during pogroms, was not central to their thinking. As they saw it, Zionism was an operation to rescue the nation and not an operation to rescue Jews as individuals. For them, the quantitative aspect was always secondary, and the founders knew from the beginning that only a few would be attracted to the task of building the nation. Thus, all efforts were directed toward the few thousand (toward the end of the 1930s there were tens of thousands already) who were organized in the Halutz (Pioneer) movement and in various youth movements. All their hopes were centered on this pioneering minority. To them, the masses of Jews who were not Zionists or who were not organized for immigration to Eretz Israel were of minor importance.

Aaron David Gordon, it is generally agreed, has a special place among the people of the Second Aliyah. To the pioneers who got off the ship at Jaffa, "this Jew of about fifty," as Katznelson described him after their first meeting, was already very old. But more important, Gordon was a man of intellectual stature. Among the young pioneers, he stood out as a giant. He was familiar with the dominant cultural trends of his time and knew how to adapt them to the needs of Zionism. Like Ahad Ha'am, Gordon was not an original thinker, but he was one of the few links between the young leadership of the labor movement and European culture as a whole. Katznelson was especially close to Gordon and absorbed his influence directly. At Kinneret, the legendary settlement on the shore of Lake Tiberias, they shared a room, and long afterward Katznelson related that he was the first person to see all of Gordon's manuscripts at that period. There is no doubt that Gordon's influence on Katznelson was decisive and profound. In the struggle between the heritage of Borochov represented by Po'alei Tzion and the pure nationalist current represented by Hapo'el Hatza'ir, Gordon's presence in the country carried special weight for those semi-intellectuals who began their political activities before the First World War.

a traditional Torah education and had not yet acquired any real European culture, the first solid basis on which to construct their national outlook. He developed a form of semisecular nationalism that in many respects, although in a far more moderate way, reflected some of the basic principles of European integral nationalism. "A complete and absolute nationalism," "a nationalism complete and absolute through and through," was how Gordon, in 1921, described the conceptual framework and modes of behavior that he deemed necessary for the nation's survival in the open and secular world of the future. For him, the existential danger was not anti-Semitism but liberalism. Since national life in exile, as we have seen, was not considered a life worth living, Gordon proposed a radical solution.

nation is "one great family," an organic body from which the individual draws not only his culture but his very existence. A nation, wrote Gordon, unlike a society, "is not a mechanical conglomeration of individuals from the general pool of humanity." Unlike a society, "which is a mere artificial conglomeration, devoid of the spirit of life," a nation "is bound up with nature. Its living connection with nature is its creative force, which makes it a living entity."

human thought), religion (that is, man's conception of the world, the expression of man's relationship to the world), morality, poetry, social life. In this sense, one can say that the nation created man."

liberal conception of the nation as a collection of individuals. He called this a "society," that is, an "artificial conglomeration, devoid of the spirit of life," as opposed to the nation, "which created human nature and human life." Moreover, "The nation represents the spirit of the individual." And elsewhere he said that one should always remember that the soul of the people "is the source of the soul of each one of us, and that its life is the source of our life." Finally, since it is a living body, a nation cannot exist for any length of time uprooted from the soil in which it grows. It receives its creative power from its roots in the soil. "This is the root of its soul," which sometimes it can preserve even after "being uprooted from its soil," but only if "it is not completely dried up or is not overlaid with the spirit of another nation." Thus, a nation has to preserve its purity of soul, and it can do this only by settling on a piece of land, which is the inheritance of the nation. "Purity of spirit" was always one of the shibboleths of tribal nationalism. There is no doubt that one finds in Gordon's teachings, as Shlomo Avineri has pointed out, an echo of Slavophile nationalism. In fact, one finds there not only echoes but a real intellectual affinity with integral nationalism.

universalistic way of thinking. He mercilessly attacked those who insisted on seeing the nation as a "fortuitous creation, a survival of the past, an unnecessary partition between men which was set up before the light of Higher Thought shone upon mankind," so that it now only remained "to destroy it and to leave it for the wide world, for humanity at large." But Gordon was also aware of the perversions and dangers to which nationalism was prone. In this respect, Gordon has a special place among the theoreticians of integral nationalism. He understood that Marxism, as well as Nietzschean individualism and Tolstoyan "altruism," could drive nationalism further and further into the clutches of the "darkest forces." Nationalism was transformed into a "brutal, vulgar chauvinism," and conditions were ripe for "the wild and vulgar national egoism to explode in all its savagery." Similar considerations applied to the relationship between the individual and the nation. "It is forbidden to sacrifice man even on the altar of the nation," said Gordon. Yet, at the same time, "Individuals are like cells in the body of the nation." A deterministic relationship defines the individual's behavior and his way of thinking even when he is not aware of the importance of the "national character in his soul." Gordon concluded that "the national "I" is in this sense the progenitor of the individual "I" or, at any rate, it plays a large part in its formation and existence." Gordon repeated this assertion in various forms, together with the principle, which was one of the cardinal tenets of organic nationalism, that this natural and organic relationship between the individual and the nation exists on an unconscious level, independently of the individual's volition. This was a key concept: even when the individual constitutes a value in himself and is not called upon to sacrifice himself on the altar of the nation, the relationship between himself and the nation remains totally independent of his own powers of decision.

participate in a common cultural tradition. This conception of the relationship between the individual and the nation is inseparable from integral nationalism.

humanity at large. Humanity is made up not of individuals but of nations: "The nation, so to speak, represents the spirit of the individual.... Through the nation, the soul of each individual becomes a kind of reflection of cosmic existence." The nation "is the link between the soul of the individual and the soul of the world.

by Johann Gottfried von Herder. Herder's thinking had tremendous importance in Eastern Europe. Shmuel Hugo Bergmann has already drawn attention to the similarity between Herder's and Gordon's views. Bergmann observed that "Herder's definition of the people and the state recurred in Gordon's `people-state' concept. And, like Herder, who stressed the organic nature of the people (Volk) and the mechanical nature of the state, Gordon claimed that the people reflected the life of the cosmos, whereas the state was merely a machine." Bergmann regards Herder the father of a pluralistic concept of nationalism, advocating a comradeship between nations, believing in spontaneity, and disparaging both the state and a closed society. He writes that Zionism, in the beginning, drew from the same "sources of humanism as those which Herder offered the awakening peoples of Europe."

context, in the second half of the eighteenth century, had a humanist dimension. But, at the same time, Herder's conception of the Volk community as an organic whole, his stress on tribal roots and on community's distinct collective consciousness, to which he also referred in terms of "national character" and "national spirit," his discussion of the conflict between "climate" and the "genetic force," had a different connotation at the beginning of this century. Herder's organic concept of the nation, the cult of the Volksgeist (the spirit of the people), his historicism, his assertion that the proper foundation of collective identity is a common culture, fostered a cultural nationalism that as early as the second half of the nineteenth century gave rise to the historical-biological form of nationalism. By contrast, liberal nationalism was inspired by the doctrine of natural rights and the idea that the individual had priority over society, and that civil society, as a collection of autonomous individuals, had priority not only over the state but also over the nation.

system, which was based on the state, corresponded to the needs of the Eastern European intelligentsia. This was even more applicable to the Jewish-nationalist intelligentsia: an acceptance of the liberal concept of society would have meant the end of the Jewish people as an autonomous unit, and Hegel's philosophy of history and philosophy of law had little significance where the Jews were concerned. However, the concept of nation offered by Herder, the father of volkisch thought, had much relevance in Eastern Europe. The definition of the nation not in political or judicial terms but in cultural, historical, linguistic, and religious terms raised the stature of all those peoples who had lost their political independence hundreds of years earlier. The idea that the individual owed his being to the nation, that unique cultural unit which derived its existence from nature and was rooted in the soil of the motherland, created a human identity independent of a person's political or social status.

conception of the nation necessarily included religion, which it saw as an inseparable part of national identity. This was the case in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, in France and Spain. French integral nationalism was no less Catholic than Polish nationalism, and religion played the same role in it as it did in Poland or Romania. It was a focus of unity and identity, over and beyond social divisions. In integral nationalism religion had a social function, unconnected with its metaphysical content. Generally, it was a religion without God; in order to fulfill its function as a unifying force, religion required only external symbols, not inner content. Thus, it was natural that Gordon would reject anticlericalism and seek a rapprochement between the religious and the secular. He regarded Jewish anticlericalism as an imitation of European phenomena, an expression of spiritual servitude. Jewish anticlericalism, in his opinion, had no justification because "our religion does not give anyone power over anyone else." If certain rabbis aspired to clerical status, he said, they were in principle no more to be blamed than those who sought power "in the name of the Haskala [Jewish Enlightenment] or in the name of the proletariat." Gordon admitted that the Haskala's negation of religion had been necessary to national revival, but now that it had taken place there was no reason to continue emulating others,

leaders of the Second Aliyah. They all regarded religious heritage or "tradition" as having a value in itself, without any connection to ceremonial or metaphysical beliefs.

Gordon's expectation "that Zionism would prove to be a movement of religious renewal," wrote Schweid, "that only as such would it have a chance of succeeding, his prayer for the revival of prophecy among the people, is simply an expression of his belief in the existence of an eternal stratum of basic religious experience." Religion, according to Gordon, is "one of the basic factors that have made man what he is ever since he has been man." Schweid concludes with two observations that are particularly interesting from our point of view: on one hand, he points out Gordon's positive attitude not only to "the traditional requirements of religion: its beliefs, its rituals, its commandments as a whole," but also to "the historical manifestations of tradition"; on the other hand, he draws attention to "the paradox of religiosity without belief in God" in Gordon's thinking.

regarded religion as an essential component of national identity. Consequently, its attitude to tradition, ritual, and, generally, the church as an institution was extraordinarily positive. Its affirmation of religion as a source of identity had no connection with metaphysics. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, religion divested of a belief in God was considered an unrivaled basis for mobilization and a component of national identity not only in Eastern Europe but also in the West. This was an outstanding example of the common ground between all national movements.

that "someone who says `I have no connection with the Jewish religion, with the historical force that gave life to our people and influenced its life, spirit, and observances for thousands of years' ... may be a decent man, but he is not a national Jew even if he lives in Eretz Israel and speaks the national tongue."

supremely important factor: for the founders, the Bible was not only a tool to cement the inner unity of society but an indispensable weapon in the struggle for the land. "We in this country," said Gordon, "created the saying `Man is made in the image of God,' and this statement has become part of the life of humanity. With this statement, a whole universe was created." From this he drew the following political conclusion: "With this, we gained our right to the land, a right that will never be abrogated as long as the Bible and all that follows from it is not abrogated."

identity had even greater importance in Zionism than in other national movements. In the final analysis, it was religion in the broadest sense, with all its national and historical connotations, that provided the justification for the conquest of the country and the legitimation of Jews' return. As in all expressions of integral nationalism, there is in Gordon a turn to irrationality. We have seen the importance Gordon attached to the unconscious, both individual and collective. Like all theoreticians of tribal nationalism, he abhorred an excessive inclination toward reason and skepticism. National rebirth was supposed to be a remedy for that weakness as well, a weakness that Gordon very typically viewed as the cause of modern degeneracy.

cultural critics of the period, turned to elan vital, mysticism, the forces of the soul. In fact, his work reflects the intellectual revolution of the turn of the century. Menachem Brinker has pointed out the feverish preoccupation with Nietzsche in Russian literature between 1890 and 1905. The currents that were active among young Jewish intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century found their way into the work of Brenner, and Nietzsche is no less present in his narratives than Tolstoy or Marx. These European influences are also very recognizable in Gordon. Even when it is difficult to know whether these are direct influences or were absorbed from the prevailing Zeitgeist, there is no doubt about the way in which these influences molded Gordon's vision of history. His 1920 article, "A Clarification of the Basis of Our Ideas," is an adaptation of Nietzsche to the needs of nationalism, very common at that time among nationalist intellectuals in Europe. The taste for spontaneity, the cult of "life," and the rejection of the "mechanical" and the "herd instinct" will he familiar to any reader of the post-Nietzchean synthesis, anyone whose ears are attuned to the expression of the reaction against modernity, socialism and liberalism which swept over Europe at the beginning of the century. Whether such an interpretation was faithful to Nietzsche's teaching is irrelevant in this context.

at the beginning of this century--"How can people be mobilized?"--Gordon accepted the conclusions of the Sorelian doctrine of "myths." He did not call it that but embraced its view that in order to mobilize people one must appeal to their instincts and emotions rather than to their intellect. "An idea has little influence on the public," he said, "as long as it is the property of individuals, or as long as the public has only a cerebral understanding of it but does not grasp it emotionally. But one has no greater power over life than when the idea becomes everyone's property, the property of all." For Gordon, the great, the one-and-only question in history and politics was: "How does one get the public to accept the idea until it becomes its own property, part of its very being, working naturally and constantly within it as an inalienable force?" As early as 1904, in his "Letter from Eretz Israel," Gordon claimed that nothing can be achieved by realism, or without self-sacrifice: material interests have no power to move people. Only the spirit, the consciousness, and the will can do this. Even socialism, wrote Gordon, had power only because of the idea it contained, because of its ability to turn "the idea from a spirit hovering upon the surface of life into a movement, a mighty current within life itself." Gordon's explanation of socialism's success shows that he did not underestimate it, which made him all the more determined to fight it.

Gordon regarded socialism as the diametrical opposite of nationalism and its greatest enemy Socialism's appeal to emotions made it all the more dangerous. Gordon realized that because of its essential nature and its principles, no synthesis between socialism and nationalism was possible. In his view, socialism held that "the basis of life is matter," and the human unit on which it depended was society, the "mechanical collectivity," whereas nationalism represented "the living collectivity, the collective personality, collective man." Gordon not only understood the nature of Marxism but knew that there was also another form of the "mechanical," another type of "materialism," namely, capitalism and liberalism. He thus rejected with equal force both of these individualistic systems, which represented the domination of "the mechanical" over "the natural." He complained that capitalism, "with its advanced technology and cities cut off from nature[,] ... has finally destroyed the collective cell, the nation ... and reduced the individual, the private personality, to an isolated atom."

societies and large cities necessarily produced by tearing individuals away from their natural roots, soil, and landscape and by the modernization process that shattered the organic unity of the community, turning an individual into an isolated molecule without an identity. Gordon's view of the individual was essentially anti-individualistic and communitarian. The individual was considered a cell in the body of the nation, an inseparable part of the whole.

common: the concept of society as a collection of individuals and the view of the individual as the final object of all social activity. These were precisely the social principles that integral nationalism abhorred, seeing them as a mortal danger to the nation. In this struggle, Gordon was totally uncompromising. He was consistent in the positions he adopted, and in the best traditions of integral nationalist ideology he attacked socialism and liberalism with the same vehemence. As he saw it, the nature and purpose of socialism and liberalism were completely opposed to the nature and purpose of nationalism. "In the world of mere matter there is room only for isolated individuals, who together are called humanity," wrote Gordon. He hated this idea, which he saw, with some justification, as one of the foundations of modernity. "Modern thought," he wrote, "which bases everything on observation and experiment, has come to the general conclusion that the basis of life is matter. It sees the economic factor as the motive power of life, as if soul and spirit were not important." He deplored "the tendency to make people envisage the future in mechanical, materialistic terms, in terms of the economic well-being of the individual."

content of both liberalism and Marxism. On one hand, he condemned "the teachings of socialism," which, he said, were "the doctrine of a human collectivity whose members have only a mechanical relationship, and whose collective life has only a mechanical economic basis"; on the other hand he attacked "modern individualistic teachings," because "individualism shrinks into its skin like a tortoise into its shell." Gordon repeatedly said that "in these teachings ... the principle of contraction ... is so profound that it can only give rise to materialism. It is the principle of contraction that produces the mechanical quality in human life, its separation from the life of the cosmos."

true enemy was socialism and not liberalism. Thus, his whole struggle was directed against a single objective: Marxism, which the first members of Po'alei Tzion had brought with them from Russia. Although Borochov had already adapted this socialism to allow it to be assimilated by the national movement, Gordon rejected this solution, declaring that "between nationalism and socialism there is an essential opposition, a contradiction that cannot be resolved. Those socialists who violently oppose nationalism are undoubtedly consistent."

consistently to the principle. The ultimate argument was always that "if one pairs socialism with nationalism, one is pairing one kind with another, and the pairing cannot be successful." In 1909 Gordon insisted on his total opposition to socialism, giving the following as his reason: "I am as distant from socialism in the form in which it exists today as Judaism is from materialism. This, indeed, was an essential principle of his, and it is of paramount importance for an understanding of his teachings and their influence on the labor movement. In his rejection of the materialism of socialism, he employed the classic terminology of romantic, volkisch nationalism.

the rational and utilitarian nature of both socialism and liberalism. The idea that society and the state were tools to serve the good of the individual was regarded as materialistic. The term materialism denoted a hedonistic and utilitarian concept of society, a readiness to accept the pursuit of wealth and happiness as a legitimate goal, and a belief that human weaknesses and the darker side of human existence were the products of social factors rather than personal ones. No opinion was more despised by the integral nationalist school than the idea that the reform of civilization necessitated the reform of society rather than of the human being. In many respects, Gordon was a moralist who was bound to be revolted by the political culture of modern materialism. "It is no accident," he wrote, "that the founders of socialism based socialism on materialism and class warfare. The very fact that they based their whole argument on one aspect of human life shows how mechanical their thinking was." The "mechanical" nature of socialism particularly repelled Gordon. Although he was aware that socialism had nonmaterialistic currents, he condemned all forms of socialism as mechanical.

which contradicted the idea of the individual as a cell in the body of the nation, an organic part of a whole. All representatives of the various organic or communitarian approaches hated individualism, in the sense that this concept had possessed since the seventeenth century, when the founders of Western liberalism, Hobbes and Locke, compared man to a molecule and society to a collection of units grouped together for their mutual advantage. In many ways, there is a great similarity between Gordon's point of view and that of the communitarian thinkers who flourished in Europe at the beginning of the century in the Catholic, antiliberal, and anti-Marxist Left. Gordon, whether consciously or instinctively, was in agreement with these cultural trends, which, although they contained oppositions and contradictions, had the same disgust for both the individualistic and the materialistic bourgeois culture and for Marxism, which was basically no less materialistic and individualistic. Adherents of the communitarian philosophy promoted organic concepts, which negated both capitalism and Marxism. But Gordon was also well grounded in the principles of romantic nationalism, which detested the "dryness" of liberalism and Marxism. He yearned for the spiritual exaltation, the outbursts of vitality and altruism of romantic nationalism, which, for him, represented the antithesis of the various kinds of Marxist socialism.

And on the previous page, he observed:

an aspect of the hated "mechanical" approach. Their preoccupation with society rather than with the individual as a cell in the body of the nation reflected, in his view, a preference for quantity over quality. Socialism's exploitation of the power of the masses--in Gordon's terminology, the exploitation of "deterministic force, or, one might say, the force of the herd"--its concern with class consciousness, and its doctrines of class warfare and the dictatorship of the proletariat betrayed its essential unhealthiness. Its practice of making social change the focus of human endeavor hindered the improvement of human beings, encouraged their egoistic and utilitarian tendencies, and finally imposed the "spiritual coercion" of a minority on the majority. Instead of developing the workers' sense of creativity and personal responsibility, socialism fostered a "herd psychology," utilitarian demands, materialism, collectivism, and an obsession with class warfare. It did not matter whether workers' claims were right or wrong. Socialism made it impossible to "change man's life and improve his character"; thus socialism's bankruptcy was revealed in all its starkness.

social injustice. A conservative who rejected socialism in the name of history and the natural order might have abandoned the idea of seeking justice and equality. The integral nationalists did not do this; they wished to do justice for the sake of the indivisibility of the nation, but while completely dissociating themselves from socialism. "As if justice and socialism were synonymous!" cried Gordon, repeating a formula used by all European integral nationalists. Moreover, the problem of exploitation was said to be not only of the workers but "of the people." Capitalism was not only the enemy of wage earners but the enemy of the people as a whole. Gordon declared that "our nationalism is all-embracing." Nationalism, which by definition represented the life of the nation in all its aspects, embraced the social side as well. A nationalist ideology could not be indifferent to the fate of any part of the people. Thus, in order to defend workers, in order to support their demands, there was no reason to resort to socialism. It was enough, for this purpose, to adhere to the principle of national solidarity. "We demand justice--justice in all its forms, between a man and his fellow human beings and between one people and another--not in the name of socialism, but in the name of nationalism," wrote Gordon. He appealed to justice for the simple reason that "a robber is a robber, and a perverter of justice is a perverter of justice, whether the robber is a capitalist or a proletarian."

"it bases human life chiefly on the reform of social order and not on the reform and renewal of the spirit of the people." Indeed, the entirety of Gordon's nationalist ideology was focused on the reform of the human being and the reform of the nation. If the individual is a limb in the body of the nation, the improvement of the nation clearly depends on the reform of the human being, and the reform of the human being can be achieved only through labor. "In order to renew life and reform the human being," wrote Gordon, one must "wage war against parasites and parasitism, and not against this or that class or this or that group. We must wage war against parasitism of every kind, parasitism that is also rooted among us, the workers, and also against spiritual parasitism, parasitism on the spirit, the thought, the creativity of others, the universes and lives of others, and so on." For Gordon, like all socially aware nationalists, "parasitism" was first a cultural rather than a socioeconomic phenomenon. For him, a parasite was anyone, an individual or a group, who did not stand on his own two feet, who did not provide for himself, and who was dependent in some way on his fellow human beings. This, he claimed, was the situation of the Jewish people as a whole, including the Yishuv in Eretz Israel. It was a parasitic body living off the labor of others. And finally, it fell into spiritual parasitism as well: "We are parasites living on the handiwork of strangers and we do not feel it, for we have been parasites exploiting the minds of strangers, the souls of strangers, and the lives of strangers."

two basic categories, the only ones that were really significant: those who created material and spiritual wealth, people living on their own labor, and the others, that is, all those whose dependence on their fellow human beings made them material and spiritual cripples. Gordon rejected the Marxist conception of society, the class conception subscribed to by all streams of world socialism. He dismissed the theories of socialism on the grounds that they were trivial or absurd. In explaining the relationship between capitalists and proletarians, Gordon's ultimate argument was that "the power of the capitalists does not reside in their wealth, and indeed, they do not have any real power. Their power is simply the individual weakness of the workers." And farther on he wrote that "the war between capitalism and the proletariat is not so much a war between capital and labor as a war between the individual and collectivity in its modern form." The solution to class struggle, as to all political, social, and cultural problems, lay in the reformation of people by developing their "sense of creativity and responsibility.

reform of the nation and the normalization of Jewish existence, physical labor had a special role. Katznelson even went so far as to say that his life in Eretz Israel and the work of Gordon had been entirely consecrated to the promotion of physical labor. Physical labor was for Gordon the means to the solution of all the problems of humanity and society. First, it was the prerequisite of all spiritual life: "The ultimate foundation of all works of the spirit is physical labor. That is, it is their foundation not in an economic sense but in a moral sense, in the sense of constituting a foundation of truth for all constructions of the spirit." Second, physical labor was the prerequisite for the reform of humans and the renewal of national existence. Similarly, Gordon viewed physical labor as the solution to the problem of exploitation and the realization of social justice. If everyone, he wrote, agreed "to abandon a life of parasitism, and if all potential idealists ... went to work and lived a life of labor, ... they would constitute a body that, through their multiplication, would slowly shift the center of power and activity in economic life and public life in general from the sphere of the capitalists to that of the workers." And finally, labor was a tool to redeem the land: the true instrument for conquering the land and restoring it to the Jewish people. "Thus, in saying `labor,' we have said everything. And if we add that labor must be free, on the basis of the nationalization of the land and the tools of labor, we have no need to seek the support of any mechanical socialism."

Gordon's opinion it stood in opposition to all personal and national renewal. Socialism denied the primacy of the nation, loathed nationalism in its organic and cultural forms, and saw a change in the ownership of wealth as the prerequisite to a change in life. It focused on the need for a social revolution and regarded all attempts to "reform man" as naivete and bourgeois hypocrisy, if not sheer deceit. It was bound to be described by Gordon as the great enemy of Zionism. Thus, Gordon stated categorically: "We did not come to Eretz Israel on behalf of socialism, and it was not for its sake that we came here to labor and to live on the fruits of our labor." Gordon endlessly repeated this assertion, and at the same time he provided the truest description of the real situation: "We all came here to be the nation and to be ourselves. A small minority came here in the name of socialism, bringing its teachings."

represented a mortal danger to Jewish nationalism, as it threatened to bring the hated exile to Eretz Israel. The founders' hatred of the exile knew no limits, and socialism represented an "exilie demon" that led astray "a rootless people hovering between life and death." Socialism, wrote Gordon in 1920, in an article entitled "Building the Nation," split the unity of the pioneering force that came to Eretz Israel, shattered its ideological cohesion, and weakened its purpose by promoting class interests and links with the international proletariat. He claimed that if socialism had triumphed, instead of a nation being built in Palestine, everything would have remained "as in the cities and shtetls of the exile." Socialism, wrote Gordon, was based on the opposition of classes, but the well-being of the nation required a solidarity transcending social divisions. One should seek unity with "our `bourgeois.' Are they not the multitudes of the house of Israel: the shopkeepers, the merchants, etc., etc.?"

an unassailable inner logic. To those who hoped that one day "a suitable compromise would be found between nationalism and socialism," Gordon answered, "Here, no compromise is possible. Here, the only thing possible is a slow, imperceptible transition from socialism to nationalism in its new form." The new nationalism, for its part, understood that "all attempts to renew human life by means of new social arrangements and social education without beginning everything afresh, from the foundations, are only palliatives, perhaps able to provide a superficial and deceptive alleviation of the sickness for a time, and are in fact harmful, in that they distract attention from the cause of the illness and the necessity for a radical cure."

spiritual and a national value. It created the new human being and the new nation; it was the expression of self-realization and of national rebirth; it symbolized a separation from the exile and was the supreme moral and practical instrument for conquering the land. It also represented a direct contact with nature. "To work in nature, to experience nature in Eretz Israel," and to feel part of the country, wrote Gordon, were one and the same thing.

our lives," as a condition for "the renewal of life here," that is, the redemption of the individual and the nation, and "the war against parasitism through labor" necessitated "the nationalization of the land and the tools of labor." Gordon laid great stress on the fact that there was no connection between his call for nationalizing the means of production and socialism or class warfare; nor, he wrote, was there any connection between the war against "parasites" and the war against the bourgeoisie. However, he claimed there was an inalienable connection between "the idea of labor and the nationalization of the land." Just as labor was the inescapable prerequisite of the reformation of man and national redemption, so "the primary foundation of national creativity ... is the land." Gordon was in total agreement with those who thought that "all the land should be national, just as all industry should be national. And there is no need," he wrote, "to be exploiters or exploited, but simply Jews working and living on their labor." The nationalization of agricultural and industrial resources was both an "economic necessity" and a means of redeeming the people."

on one hand developed a violent anti-Marxism, which also meant rejecting democratic socialism, yet on the other hand opposed capitalist exploitation and demanded public ownership of the means of production on behalf of the nation. The unity of the nation required the elimination of the exploitation that tore it apart, just as it necessitated an uncompromising struggle against the principle of class warfare. Gordon entirely opposed the policy of promoting "Jewish labor" in Palestine to serve any class interests whatsoever. In 1920, after the founding of Ahdut Ha'avoda and the Histadrut, he saw fit to declare, on behalf of those who rejected the idea of the unification of Hapo'el Hatza'ir and Po'alei Tzion, that Hapo'el Hatza'ir "did not seek socialism-either political socialism or productive socialism (if its activities in any way resemble productive socialism, that is, life; but the way of socialism is not its way, nor is the spirit of socialism its spirit)." The only union he recognized was "the complete union of soul of the entire people without any differences of class, party, or sect." Although Gordon regarded the reform of the human being as a value in itself, he considered the nation the sole criterion of all social and political action. It was the national "I" that prescribed the nature of the individual "I"; he did not view the individual as having any existence outside the organic framework of the nation. Thus, the moral arguments that Gordon used in favor of public ownership of the means of production were nationalist.

"Building the Nation," an essay that can be counted among the classics of nationalist socialism, he demonstrated his awareness of the deeper implications of his teachings.

In the second article, "On the Unification," Gordon gave us another classic example of nationalist socialist doctrine.

that economic oppression, like great social differences, tears the nation apart and places its future in jeopardy. He rejected the rule of finance and class warfare in equal measure. The perpetuation of the existing social and economic order was almost as dangerous, in his opinion, as a socialist revolution. Gordon condemned the "rotten order of the domination of work by capital," but he claimed that capitalists and "those living on the work of others" who are interested in maintaining that order "constitute a very small part of any people." The great majority of the population, including the middle classes, has no reason to want "that rotten order to continue." In the best traditions of nationalist socialism, Gordon maintained that "from the national point of view, the war between labor and capital is not a class war and is not only an economic conflict but a war of the people against its parasitic elements, a war of life against corruption." He continued: "The power of the people is in labor, and the people wants the worker to eat the fruit of his labor in its entirety but does not want the power of his labor, the power of the people, to come to nothing." The worker, wrote Gordon, is the people, and workers as a class constitute the majority of the people, as opposed to a small stratum of exploiters. The war against exploitative capital is not a war against the bourgeoisie (a social category that in Gordon's oeuvre generally appears in quotation marks) but against parasitical elements, for the true struggle of all times and places is between producers and parasites.

against capital, "which is essentially international, or a-national and inhuman," but "to concentrate on work, which is essentially national, and to fight against capital within the limits of the nation." Farther on, Gordon added another principle, which would become basic to constructive socialism and would be a chief feature of the cultural revolution as interpreted by the labor movement: "The emphasis should be not on the workers' portion of the immediate material benefits of labor but on the work itself--that is, its creativity and the spiritual benefit contained in it."

value: the reformation of the individual and the rebirth of the nation would come about through labor, as would the conquest of the land. Here, the workers played the role of "a vanguard going before the people." However, in a letter to Brenner in 1912, Gordon was careful to point out that although in his teachings "the main emphasis is on the actions of a few," he was not advocating a Nietzschean morality. These few are "the first to go forward and reach the place where the people are to be gathered," but this group should not "regard itself as a special class among the people, or as one part in opposition to another part." It serves as an infrastructure for the national edifice; it assumes responsibilities and experiences hardships, but unlike the proletariat in socialism, it has to remain an inseparable part of the nation as a whole. The Yishuv in Eretz Israel, the prototype of such a pioneering group, was "the first living cell of the national body in the process of resurrection." Its task was to bring to fruition the rights of the Jewish people over Eretz Israel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2015

    Walter Alvarez tells the story of the discovery of the existence

    Walter Alvarez tells the story of the discovery of the existence and location of the impact which caused the end-Cretaceous
     extinction event with the knowledge only an insider could possess. This was an interesting look into the decades long scientific
    process into determining just what killed the dinosaurs. I enjoyed learning more of the details about the comet's (or maybe asteroid)
    effects on earth's deeply complex geology, a subject I'm not all that I have never learned about or been too interested in. Science is
    difficult and full of misleading evidence and there are often many different theories on the same events or happenings. I would have
     liked to hear a little more about the people involved in the process of research needed for this novel and the actual writing of the book.
    There are hints of a few interesting conflicts that are summarized and not explained to the level I would prefer them to be. Maybe he
     had an idea of putting that information into another novel. Alvarez tells his own story, the story of how he was at the center of discovering
     evidence for the dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago having been caused by a meteor/comet impact. Overall it was a great read.
     Even though you know the outcome of what happened to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs going in the author manages to capture
     the drama experienced over 20 years of research leading to the discovery of the crater and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. -Sean Breen

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