These are the days of miracles and wonders, as Paul Simon once sang. News of one such marvel took me on a bright spring morning to the paleontology labs of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. There I found myself looking with awe at the fossilized bones of an ancient paddlefish.
We could profitably spend time reflecting on the miracle of spring mornings, of paddlefish, of life itself - for these all seem rare indeed, at least in our known corner of the universe. What had me thunderstruck, though, was not the life of that fish, but its death. Tiny beads of glass caught in its gill rakers suggest that the creature perished while gasping for air as fire rained from the sky. The composition of those beads, or tektites, further suggests that they were formed when a massive asteroid slammed into the Earth with the force of 10 billion Hiroshimas and ended the Cretaceous period.
In other words, I was looking at a recording in rock of the moment when life nearly ended on Earth, arguably the biggest single event in our planet's living history.
This fish is one of a trove of fossils discovered by KU graduate student Robert DePalma at a site in North Dakota. Should the site prove to contain all that DePalma claims, it is among the most important finds in history, a vivid document from the very day that doomed the dinosaurs.
DePalma's thesis adviser, David Burnham, was bright-eyed with excitement as he showed me the fish and other artifacts entombed in the fallout from the so-called Tanis site. A decorated veteran of the academic battlefield, Burnham appeared unworried that some scientists have expressed doubts about the extravagant claims and flamboyant character attributed to DePalma by New Yorker writer Douglas Preston in the riveting story that revealed the discovery.
"We will be making the case in a number of papers over the next few years, and people will see what we've found," said Burnham. It's all there, he assured me: evidence of catastrophic flooding unleashed by seismic waves, of pulverized bedrock falling like hail, of forests burning in a worldwide conflagration, of early mammals huddling in their burrows as dinosaurs died aboveground. He reiterated what he told Preston: Scientists will be unpacking the treasures of Tanis for the next half-century.
One of the astonishments of these times is just how large a half-century has become. A young paleontologist working the same sparse, gray land 50 years ago could have unearthed this fossil bed without the knowledge necessary to read its amazing story. The Apollo missions to the moon had just awakened the scientific community to the idea of space as a sort of shooting gallery in which the Earth was the target of frequent incoming shots. The father-and-son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez had not yet argued that a band of ash heavy in iridium, a rare metal found in space debris, had coated the Earth roughly 65 million years ago (science would later narrow the date to about 66 million years ago). Alan Hildebrand and William Boynton had not yet pinpointed the Chicxulub crater in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula as the impact site of a giant asteroid or comet.
Indeed, only in 2010 did a panel of scientists weigh in to say, based on core samples of the crater, that an impact some 66 million years ago sent shock waves through the planet, raining fire and coating the Earth in ash. This catastrophe marked the end of the age of dinosaurs, extinguishing some 95 percent of all species and clearing the way for the rise of mammals - including those large-brained mammalians who would later find this moment recorded in the rolling prairie of North Dakota.
One thing to be learned in the coming years is what role Tanis might play in understanding the Deccan Traps, a group of super-volcanoes in what is now India. The geologist Gerta Keller, whose remarkable career runs from waitress to Princeton professor, contends that eruptions of these volcanoes began the dinosaur die-off long before the asteroid impact. Her analysis of DePalma's findings will be eagerly awaited.
It's all part of the advance of science, which has accelerated from a march to a gallop. Technology and globalization may rattle economies and inflame politics, but they are astonishing accelerators of discovery. I could see this in Burnham's face as he described the dinosaur plumage unearthed at Tanis - feathers made readily comprehensible thanks to the discovery in the 1990s of exquisite feathered fossils at Liaoning, China. Within a short time, he said, scanning electron microscopes will access traces in the fossils that reveal the precise colors of those long-dead ancestors of today's birds.
Miracles and wonders are all around us, though we might not find them trending on Twitter or driving political debates. Sometimes, we have to dig a little.
This article was written by David Von Drehle, a columnist from The Washington Post.