The fossil finds in Corral Bluffs just east of Colorado Springs are simply fantastic. What a privilege to be alive during the discovery of such a treasure trove of knowledge. It just doesn’t get any better.
Cast your minds back to 66 million years ago, give or take. The world is a real-life Jurassic Park; dinosaurs roam freely. Mammals can’t get much bigger than squirrels; those that try get eaten. Dinosaurs are on the prow of the Titanic, kings of the world. That is, until the ship hits an iceberg.
If you wait long enough, the barely imaginable becomes likely. As best as we can tell, a collision of multiple asteroids from when our solar system was young led one of those big rocks to beat trillion-to-one odds. After a journey of a few billion years, it arrived at the same point in space and time as our little planet.
At least 6 miles wide, and maybe much bigger, it smashed into the ground with the energy of a billion atomic bombs, making a crater almost 100 miles in diameter. (The crater is buried in the Yucatan, you can see the result of the asteroid as a stripe in the rock in various places around Colorado).
You want to talk climate change? The impact boiled the earth and then cooled it, turned the sky dark for a year or so, and led to a reaction up the food chain that killed about 75% of species, including all those dinosaurs you painted on your kids’ bedroom wall. Well, the ones that I did anyway.
Suddenly, the last became the first, as the tiny mammals that managed to survive found themselves the most complex life forms around. Freed up to evolve, they became echidnas, kangaroos, platypuses, lions, elephants, whales, and several thousand other species. Many of these creatures, over time, eventually figured out that incubating their young in the womb of the female of the species and then nourishing them with milk worked quite nicely, thank you very much. Remind you of anybody?
What we didn’t know about this part of our story was how long this process took after the asteroid fell. How long did it take for the plants to come back? How quickly did placental mammals grow? What species developed when? Fossils dating the first million years or so after the impact were excruciatingly rare.
Before Corral Bluffs, scientists had to debate and speculate. After the find, scientists who had published answers about these questions that were contradictory to what the team found were, how do I put this, wrong. They were just wrong. That’s what scientists are when the evidence contradicts their theories.
I’ve been on panels and spoken publicly about science and the scientific method in Colorado Springs for most of my professional life. I am often asked “How can you trust science when scientists constantly change their minds?” My answer is always the same: It’s precisely people who change their minds when the evidence says they should who deserve the most trust.
That’s why science is trustworthy. Not individual scientists, who are flawed human beings like everybody else, but the scientific process. Imperfect as it is, it works darn well. In the thousands of years since humans developed big brains, we haven’t come up with anything better at understanding our world. Nor, I suspect, will we.
Science shows the incredible beauty of the world we live in. The world that the scientific process reveals is so incredibly and astonishingly awe-inspiring, so stunningly beautiful, those who are unfamiliar with it are missing out an absolutely vital part of the human experience.
Sadly, this beautiful and inspiring process of discovery of the natural world, through no fault of its own, is losing credibility. Similarly, the astonishing accuracy and beauty of mathematics in describing that world is becoming lost in the fuzz of identity politics and political correctness. In our age of mistrust and uncertainty, facts seem either nonexistent or unimportant, belief and power are the ultimate reality. That must change.
Besides, when the next asteroid drops in to say hello, who you gonna call? Who’s going to make sure we mammals don’t get knocked off our perch? I’m thinking you’ll need scientists, mathematicians and engineers to design a planetary asteroid defense system, along with a colony on Mars as backup. But that’s another column for another time.
Barry Fagin is senior fellow in technology policy at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can contact Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.