Odds are, if an asteroid hadn’t crashed into Earth, we wouldn’t be here.
BY SEAN B. CARROLL
In 2001, Seth MacFarlane was the 27-year-old executive producer and creator of the not-yet-hit animated show Family Guy. Having broken into the entertainment big leagues at such a young age, MacFarlane was invited back in September to address his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design. After giving a talk, he went out for what turned out to be a late night of drinking with some professors.
The next morning, September 11, MacFarlane raced to catch an 8:15 a.m. flight out of Boston back to Los Angeles. He was too late—the flight was actually at 7:45 a.m.; his travel agent had written down the wrong information. MacFarlane was rebooked on a later flight and went to doze in the passenger lounge. He was awakened by a commotion as passengers gasped at news coverage from New York showing the North Tower of the World Trade Center aflame. A short while later, the plane that struck the Tower was identified as American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles—the flight MacFarlane had missed.
Had the asteroid arrived 30 minutes sooner or 30 minutes later, the dinosaurs would still be here.
Actor Mark Wahlberg had also been booked on that same flight. A rising star known for his work in The Perfect Storm and Boogie Nights, Wahlberg and some friends changed their plans and hired a charter plane to a film festival in Toronto. They later flew on to Los Angeles.
Eleven years later, MacFarlane and Wahlberg teamed up to make the film Ted. So, just what are the odds that these two guys would both miss Flight 11, and later make a hit movie together? Were their escapes from mass murder just dumb luck, or was there a greater purpose at work? Were MacFarlane and Wahlberg spared so that our lives would be enriched by a pot-smoking, trash-talking teddy bear come to life? Or, so that movie industry coffers would be enriched by more than $500 million?
MacFarlane himself doesn’t think so. “Alcohol is our friend, that’s the moral of that story,” he offered. “I am not a fatalist.”
Dumb luck, happenstance, accident—call it what you will. MacFarlane’s late arrival to the airport was purely an accident, albeit an accident with enormous personal consequences. It is sobering to think what a thin line there can be between victim and survivor, between life and death. What a difference just 30 minutes can make.
It’s a thin line in nature as well, not just for individual creatures (think of animal prey), or even species, but of whole worlds. Drive almost anywhere outside of a city, and the road is likely cut in places through a rock bed. Chances are most of us just ignore the pages of history staring us in the face. But those stacks of often colorful stone tablets tell stories, if you know how to read them.
Strada regionale 298 winds through a limestone gorge just outside Gubbio, a charming medieval town in the Umbria region of central Italy. In the mid-1970s, geologist Walter Alvarez saw an interesting pattern in a column of rock very close to the road. He noticed that in one section of the many layers of limestone, there was a switch in color, from white below to red above. When Alvarez looked closer, he saw that there was a peculiar layer of greyish clay separating the two colors of rock. Alvarez’s decryption of that one centimeter thin line would lead to one of the most stunning and revolutionary scientific discoveries of the 20th century and begin to tell the story of the most important day on Earth in the last 100 million years—a day that was very, very unlucky for most everything alive, but would eventually turn out to be extremely fortunate for us. And on that day a long, long time ago, 30 minutes would make all the difference.
One way that geologists characterize rocks is by the fossils they contain. The Gubbio rock formation was once part of an ancient seabed, so it contained the fossilized shells of tiny creatures called foraminifera, or “forams” for short…