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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

William A. S. Sarjeant

Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

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 happened ...

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 [2001] 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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