James Lawrence Powell, president and director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, has recently written a book, "Night Comes to the Cretaceous: Dinosaur Extinction and the Transformation of Modern Geology" (W.H. Freeman and Co.). In the book, Powell explains the catastrophic and horrific extinction of the dinosaurs from a meteorite impact. (A frightful but remote possibility of another such collision and the similar extinction of Earth's present inhabitants is currently explored in the films "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon.")
Q: You describe the meteorite impact that killed off the dinosaurs as having had the energy of 7 billion Hirsohima bombs--one for every person on earth. When you look up at the sky, do you ever feel horror?
A: I look at it with apprehension, knowing that one day, probably long after you and I are gone, someone will look up and see a new light in the sky. As the days go by, they'll see that light get brighter and brighter and there'll be some near-misses, but one day there will actually be a collision. It's a mathematical certainty. What is not certain is how long we'll have to wait. It could be next year, it could be 100,000 years from now.
Q: Your book documents how Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez, who championed the meteorite impact extinction theory, was challenged unsuccessfully by fellow scientists. Would you think twice about challenging a Nobel laureate's science, even if you thought it was wrong?
A: Being honest, yes! You would have to. But one hopes there are some people who would be brave and fight it out anyway.
Q: How big of a role does politics play in a successful scientific career?
A: I think one can do science and have a very successful career without getting embroiled in politics. But when you challenge orthodoxy and you're trying to make a paradigm shift, you're making an omelet, as the cliche goes, and some eggs are going to get broken along the way. Certain people don't have the personalities to tough that through.
Q. Do you have a favorite dinosaur?
A. The T-Rex. If you never found its bones, you would dismiss it as science fiction or fantasy, and yet we have its bones in our foyer, so we know it really lived. I like to stand under it, look up and think about that distant world in the late Cretaceous when creatures like that were all over the place and how, in spite of their apparent dominance and supremacy, they all died. It reminds us that we may be vulnerable in ways we've not completely figured out.