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William A. S. Sarjeant
Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
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Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 10 December 2002
Host: Everyone knows an asteroid impact killed off the
dinosaurs, right? Wrong. Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer
with a decidedly Canadian perspective on what really
Robert J. Sawyer: As 2002 comes to a close, it's
appropriate to stop for a moment and think about those we lost
this past year. William Antony Swithin Sarjeant, a professor of
geology and paleontology at the University of Saskatchewan, was a
great Canadian scientist. He passed away in July, one week
shy of his 67th birthday.
Bill and I got to be friends because he also happened to be a
fellow science-fiction writer, producing a wonderful series of
novels under his two middle names: "Antony Swithin."
Bill Sarjeant, who looked an awful lot like Santa Claus, was born
in Sheffield, England, in 1935, and came to Canada with his wife
Peggy in 1972. He fought a lot of good fights during his life
including pushing Saskatoon to recognize its wonderful
heritage. That city's "Special Committee for the Identification
and Listing of Historic Buildings" was founded at his insistence,
and he was its first chair.
And, of course, Bill fought hard against the liver cancer that
took his life.
But in scientific circles, the fight Bill Sarjeant is perhaps
best known for was his tireless battle against the simplistic
notion that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the
dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Sound Effect: Dinosaur roaring
There have been so many popular-science articles and TV shows
about an asteroid killing the dinosaurs that most people take for
granted that this is an established fact. But Bill saw
tyrannosaurus-sized holes in the theory.
One of his last published papers, coauthored with another
Canadian paleontologist, Phil Currie, was called "The `Great
Extinction' That Never Happened." It appeared last year  in the
Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.
Sound Effect: Birds chirping
In it, Bill points out, quite rightly, that the dinosaurs didn't
really go extinct, since birds are essentially dinosaurs;
we know now that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs, many of
whom had feathers.
Still, some types of dinosaurs did die off, leaving no
descendants. But did those dinosaurs all die out
simultaneously, as popular belief has it? Bill didn't
think so and he challenged anyone who disagreed to prove
him wrong using the fossil record.
But no one could because, as Bill well knew, the fossil
record is woefully incomplete. We have lots of dinosaur fossils
from western Canada, for instance but none at all from
eastern Canada, because no rocks from the age of dinosaurs have
survived there. It's quite possible that for thousands, or even
millions, of years after the big dinosaurs died out in Alberta
that others were still alive and well in Ontario.
Bill also questioned the principal evidence for the supposed
asteroid impact, which has to do with the element iridium.
Iridium is rare on the surface of the earth, but common in
asteroids and a layer of iridium seems to have been laid
down worldwide about 65 million years ago, suggesting to some
that an asteroid must have hit our planet then.
Sound Effect: Volcanic eruptions
But, according to Bill, the iridium layer could also have been
laid down by volcanic explosions, such as those that we know were
occurring in India 65 million years ago.
Said Bill: "Whenever it happened, the extinction [of the
dinosaurs] appears to have been the product of natural causes
a slow decline, occasioned by environmental changes, and
not an extraterrestrially induced catastrophe."
That assessment isn't sensationalist, and it doesn't make for
great headlines but it was good, solid science.
And William Antony Swithin Sarjeant was a good, solid scientist.
He didn't care about what was flashy or likely to get him on TV
he only cared about the truth. His passing, in 2002, was a
loss to us all.
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
More Good Reading
Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer
Rob's novel End of an Era, which was one of Bill Sarjeant's favourites, and also deals with the failure of the asteroid-impact model to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs
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