The Day the Dinosaurs Maybe Caught Fire
Nonfiction. Harrowing in parts. Overly critical of T-Rex arms in other parts.
Jurassic Park doesn’t really do them justice. Even with the help of six feature length films in the franchise, dinosaurs are difficult to really imagine and believe in and take seriously.
Consider our friend the T-Rex.
Tyrannosauruses are one of the largest land-dwelling carnivores the Earth has ever known: 8.4 metric tonnes spread over twelve full metres, with teeth that could literally crush the bones of its prey. But it had those funny little arms. Haha! What a wacky pair of pee-wee flappers for Evolution to gift unto this mighty, murderous beast. Can’t you just picture a T-Rex having to use its hilarious, tiny, impotent arms to tie its shoelaces, or fold laundry or struggle to dial a rotary telephone in some kind of dinosaur-related emergency? You know like, it can’t get its talon into the right number-hole, and its enormous head keeps knocking the phone of its receiver, and dinosaurs are like running around it on fire, and screaming, and the T-Rex just doesn’t for the life of it have the fine-motored dexterity for this urgent task, and it keeps dialling like 0-0-9 and 0-8-0 and tantalising stuff like that, and so eventually it just stomps the phone and looks up at the sky and waves its actually-so-hilarious little fists and is like, ‘Fuck you god! Why’d you give me these goofy fuckin’ arms?!’
T-Rexes seem like a pretty unlikely beast when you really stop and think about them. Dinosaurs in general might make more sense as mythological creatures, in the same league as dragons, krakens, and basilisks, and yet every museum in the world seems to have a massive, reconstructed dino skeleton smack bang in the middle of its best-lit room. The modern world is full of hard-to-deny superhuge bona fide bone-ified monsters. And they maybe didn’t have rotary dial telephones, but they really did exist.
About 250 million years ago, gigantoid volcanic eruptions completely changed the Earth’s ecology and wiped out 95% of all species. Primordial dinosaurs, then just the size of domestic cats, were among the 5% of species to survive. Over the next 170 million years of evolution, they came to totally dominate the surface of the Earth. Dinosaurs spread to every corner of the globe, diverse in size and style and dietary requirements, and some of them reached the actual physical limit of how big a living thing can be and still function against the force of gravity. Like the Argentinosaurus—hailing from guess what modern country?—that dimensions-wise was considerably bigger than a professional basketball court and weighed 6,500 kg. The immensity of the dino’s physical size, and their reign on Earth, is really pretty hard to make sense of. Even today, roughly once a week for the last ten years, palaeontologists have discovered a whole new species of dinosaur. They were the thing to be on planet Earth for an incomprehensible period of time—diverse, numerous, humongous survivors, built to last the distance.
And then they suddenly, abruptly, disappeared.
You’ve probably heard about the asteroid.
There’s a crater beneath the Yucatán Peninsula—a by-all-accounts beautiful place off the tip of Mexico. Satellite images, geological sampling, and other serious-sounding science words were used to extrapolate that this Chicxulub crater is the site of the Big Asteroid Crash. On some fateful day about 66 million years ago, a Mount Everest-sized space rock smacked into the Earth. The asteroid hit the planet’s atmosphere like a bullet being fired into a thick wall of gas, such that in its wake it would have briefly torn a hole in the atmosphere. That means that if you’d been standing in just the right spot and had the right kind of eyeballs you’d have seen the asteroid literally punch a night-time gap in a day-time blue sky. But this would not be the right spot to stand for long. The asteroid plows down so fast and so hot that it becomes a white, unimaginably bright fireball, burning way hotter than the sun, and crashes into the Gulf of Mexico five seconds after breaching the atmosphere. Bang! With 100 million megatons of explosive force. Bang! Like a billion nuclear bombs worth of energy going off in one spot and all at once. BANG!
No tool is precise enough to prove definitively what happened next. The asteroid would have instantly liquified and vaporised everything it touched, and since it hit the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico it would have pretty quickly plowed through into the Earth’s crust, generating an astonishingly hot high-pressure rock gas, that would be ejected back through the asteroid’s hole all the way into space. And since space is very cold, it’d rapidly cool. The plume of gas would instantly turn into tiny droplets of glass about the size of grains of sand. Almost like little snow globes. There are trillions of these things in a cloud of shrapnel, which is caught by Earth’s gravity and pulled back down. 90% of the glass balls burn up on reentry into the atmosphere, collectively contributing to a level of radiant heat that would have turned the sky red, making some parts of the planet the approximate temperature and feel of the inside of a pizza oven, literally boiling the blood of affected dinos and igniting global firestorms that wipe them out for good.
Not everyone agrees with this pizza oven theory, which probably has a more respectable name, promoted by Dr. Jay Melosh—the Cretaceous-Paleogene Firestorm Debate is a contentious field of geophysical academics. Some believe the impact triggered colossal tsunamis and a thick atmospheric ash and gas wall that blocked the sun's rays, creating a sudden, severe and prolonged global winter, thereby slowly extinctifying species through massive ecological change. This is the same kind of thing that might happen following a Nuclear War. Other theories claim the dinosaurs carked it because of one or a combo of huge volcanic eruptions, multiple simultaneous asteroid impacts, or sea-level regressions. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that whatever did it was big, bad, out-of-the-blue, and not the dinosaurs' doing at all.
So imagine again our T-Rex friend—who’s of course just watched all his friends inexplicably catch fire and wasn’t personally able to work any extinguishers or rotary-dial someone who might—lying on its back in the dim-red post-apocalyptic glow, putting its really pricelessly hilariously tiny little arms with interlocked talons behind its head, looking up at the stars. What would it think? Would it wonder who shot that asteroid bullet at the Earth, and why? What horrible things must the dinosaurs have done over 170 million years to karmically justify this kind of drastic cosmic annihilation? Plus, could they have done something to mitigate all this catastrophe? Could they have set up nominal emissions targets? Urgently moved to sustainable energy, enforced global nuclear disarmament, just generally mellowed on their whole mass-consumptive, wasteful, self-destructive behaviours? Could they have stopped burning their own fossilised bones for fuel? And, crucially, what if they’d had some kind of access to the 1998 science fiction disaster film Armageddon (sitting at an, in my opinion, unjust 38% on Rotten Tomatoes), starring Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi (!?) and a young Ben Affleck hot off the heels of the thematically-very-different-indeed Good Will Hunting, in which a rag-tag bunch of blue-collar deep-sea oil drillers (the heroes of this movie) are sent into space by NASA to drill a hole in a big, approaching asteroid (duh), insert a nuke into the hole (double duh) and detonate it (sounds good to me), thereby splitting the asteroid into two clean halves that shoot past either side of the Earth? Could the dinosaurs have learned something from this cinematic masterpiece? Could a rag-tag bunch of blue-collar Tyrannosaurus Rexes even operate the requisite machinery with their honestly-side-splitting, goofy-as-fuck little arms? And so but then why even dominate the earth for 170 million years if you’re just going to randomly blow up one day, along with all your buddies? What’s the point to life? Is it, simply, be alive? But what kind of a point is that? What is the meaning of all this random cosmic chaos and out-of-the-clear-blue-sky mass-extinctionism and why the fuck would any species knowingly bring it on themselves?
Little arms are not necessarily synonymous with little ideas.
It’s pretty hard to see a lesson in any of it. The asteroid came totally out of nowhere and obliterated a species much more dominant than our own, proving the fragility of life, the futility of power, and something about rotary dial telephones. But also, like, if they hadn’t blown up, human beings and all of our miraculous cinematic accomplishments wouldn’t exist, which is unconscionable. Like can you even imagine a universe without the 1998 science fiction disaster film Armageddon in it? What a horrible place that would be.
It’s maybe probably best not to think about, I guess. At least we’re not in a pizza oven.