Doug Davis

"One Hundred Million Hydrogen Bombs": The Cold War Science of Geological Catastrophism

April 9, 1999

by Doug Davis



In his recent autobiographical history, T. rex and the Crater of doom, geophysicist Walter Alvarez tells a Kuhnian story of how the anomalous discovery of an irridium spike in a layer of 60 million-year-old Italian clay led to one of the most exciting discoveries of this century, the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs. Indeed, Alvarez credits his father, Luis Alvarez, and his Berkeley research team with inaugurating a new paradigm of earth science study, an indisciplinary field that we may call impact paleontology. This science has caught the public interest: the term "K/T"-signifying the strategraphic layer between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods-has graced the cover of Time, and the threat of a massive impact has seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent in support of a small boom of far less scientifically astute or dramatic Hollywood films retelling The Dirty Dozen as a duck and cover drill.

Not surprisingly, Walter Alvarez's is only part of his own history. His team's discovery is framed by the longer history of developments in the earth sciences, in particular the discovery of terrestrial and lunar impact craters. It is also part of the immediate history of the Cold War and the atomic age, a connection nicely dramatized by Walter Alvarez's own father, the Noble laurete physicist Luis Alvarez. Roughly thirty five years after accompanying the Enola Gay as a scientific observer during the Hiroshima bombing mission, it was Luis Alvarez who proved instrumental in seeing the connection between the irridium, a massive impact with an extraterrestrial body, and the universe's own kind of total war.

In this paper I map out the connections between the new catastrophism and two Cold-War histories: the scientific history of impact geology and the cultural history of the Cold War's nuclear predicament. In particular, I understand geological catastrophism to be a "Cold-War science" in several ways: its necessary predecessor, impact geology, was materially enabled through developments in nuclear-weapons sciences, in particular through nuclear-test-site studies of high-pressure metamorphosis and work on nuclear winter. The language that geological catastrophists employ is likewise rooted in Cold War ideology, specifically in the discourse of nuclear war. Geology is especially rich with tropes, from its conceptual base in the figure of the "geologic record" to its various tropes for non-human agency.

The rhetoric of the new mass-extinction sciences is marked by metaphors of violence and intent, metaphors that I argue are drawn from the greater cultural discourse of nuclear war. Indeed, I find that the language of nuclear war has been a helpful metaphorical aid to paleontologists, providing epistemic access to events that are at once beyond human ken yet also seem frighteningly familiar. The fact that the Alvarez theory has caught the public imagination is not an accident, for it was already part of the public imaginary. The new stories earth scientists tell about the death of the dinosaurs are fascinating not because they are so new, but because they are so familiar to subjects of the Cold War's delicate balance of terror.

   Cold War Connection Home Page

[Text Only Index]