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Hunter of dinosaur mystery to address scientific revolutions

February 18, 2008

Walter Alvarez, world-renowned geologist and author of “T. rex and the Crater of Doom,” is no stranger to scientific revolutions. It was Alvarez, along with his father and two other researchers, who in 1980 published their hypothesis that dinosaurs and other species on Earth were obliterated some 65 million years ago after an object from outer space, either a comet or asteroid, crashed into the planet, creating a large crater and a massive dust cloud.

Alvarez, a professor of geology at the University of California, Berkeley, will deliver a lecture Feb. 21 on scientific revolutions that shaped history, as this year’s recipient of the Eugene Shoemaker Memorial Award presented by BEYOND, the Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. The 7:30 p.m. lecture will be given in the Great Hall located in Armstrong Hall on ASU’s Tempe campus.

“Alvarez is world famous for his widely-accepted impact theory and his extensive research in plate tectonics and geomagnetic reversals,” says Paul Davies, an ASU professor and director of BEYOND in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It’s fitting to honor him as the second recipient of the Shoemaker Memorial Award.”

Shoemaker was known for his pioneering research with his wife, Carolyn, in the field of asteroid and comet impacts. Last year’s recipient was Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt.

In 1988, the Shoemakers named a minor planet “Alvarez” (1985 HC), in honor of Alvarez and his father, Luis, a Nobel laureate.

Among many other contributions to the field of astronomy, Shoemaker, his wife, and their friend David Levy, discovered a comet that collided with Jupiter in 1994. That comet was named the Shoemaker-Levy 9.

The Eugene Shoemaker Memorial Award is presented each year to a leading scientist in honor of his or her life and work.

This year’s recipient, Alvarez, joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1977, when he began a study of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period (the final years of the age of dinosaurs) as recorded in the Italian limestones. Evidence from iridium measurements suggested that the extinction was due to impact on the Earth of a giant asteroid or comet, and, many years later that hypothesis was confirmed by the discovery of the largest impact crater on the planet, in the subsurface of the Yucatán Peninsula, dating from precisely the time of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.

From 1994 to 1997 Alvarez was chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, and since then has returned to teaching and to research centered on Mediterranean tectonics, impact events and Earth’s history as recorded in the sedimentary rocks of the Colorado Plateau and in the deep-water limestones of Italy.

His current interest is “Big History,” the emerging interdisciplinary field that aims to tie everything in Earth’s past – its cosmic ancestry, its geological and paleontological evolution and the pageant of human societies – into a coherent understanding of the grand sweep and character of history. His Feb. 21 lecture at ASU is titled “Scientific revolutions that shaped history: From the Portuguese explorers to Gene Shoemaker and the planets.”

Alvarez is a recipient of the Penrose Medal, the highest honor of the Geological Society of America, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He earned a doctorate in geology from Princeton University and a bachelor’s degree in geology from Carleton College in Minnesota.

The Eugene Shoemaker Memorial Lecture is free and open to the public. Seating is limited and reservations are required. Information at or 480-965-3240.

Carol Hughes,
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences