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Comet Theory Comes Crashing to Earth

• May 14, 2011 • 4:00 AM

An elegant archaeological hypothesis, under fire for results that can’t be replicated, may ultimately come undone.

It seemed like such an elegant answer to an age-old mystery: the disappearance of what are arguably North America’s first people. A speeding comet nearly 13,000 years ago was the culprit, the theory goes, spraying ice and rocks across the continent, killing the Clovis people and the mammoths they fed on, and plunging the region into a deep chill. The idea so captivated the public that three movies describing the catastrophe were produced.

But now, four years after the purportedly supportive evidence was reported, a host of scientific authorities systematically have made the case that the comet theory is “bogus.” Researchers from multiple scientific fields are calling the theory one of the most misguided ideas in the history of modern archaeology, which begs for an independent review so an accurate record is reflected in the literature.

“It is an impossible scenario,” says Mark Boslough, a physicist at Sandia Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., where he taps the world’s fastest computers for nuclear bomb experiments to study such impacts. His computations show the debris from such a comet couldn’t cover the proposed impact field. In March, a “requiem” for the theory even was published by a group that included leading specialists from archaeology to botany.

Yet, the scientists who described the alleged impact in a hallowed U.S. scientific journal refuse to consider the critics’ evidence — insisting they are correct, even though no one can replicate their work: the hallmark of credibility in the scientific world.

The primary authors of the theory are an unusual mix: James Kennett, a virtual father of marine geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara; Richard Firestone, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California; and Allen West, an unknown academic from the mining industry who lives in Dewey, Ariz.

“We are under a lot of duress,” said Kennett. “It has been quite painful.” So much so, that team members call their critics’ work “biased,” “nonsense” and “screwed up.”

Such intransigence has been seen before in other cases of grand scientific claims. Sometimes those theories were based on data irregularities. Other times, the proponents succumbed to self-delusion. But typically, advocates become so invested in their ideas they can’t publicly acknowledge error.

A new look at the comet claim suggests all of these phenomena may be in play, apparently creating a peculiar bond of desperation as the theory came under increasing attack. Indeed, the team’s established scientists are so wedded to the theory they have opted to ignore the fact their colleague “Allen West” isn’t exactly who he says he is.

West is Allen Whitt — who, in 2002, was fined by California and convicted for masquerading as a state-licensed geologist when he charged small-town officials fat fees for water studies. After completing probation in 2003 in San Bernardino County, he began work on the comet theory, legally adopting his new name in 2006 as he promoted it in a popular book. Only when questioned by this reporter last year did his co-authors learn his original identity and legal history. Since then, they have not disclosed it to the scientific community.

West’s history — and new concerns about study results he was integrally involved in — raise intriguing questions about the veracity of the comet claim. His background is likely to create more doubts about the theory. And the controversy — because it involves the politically sensitive issue of a climate shift — is potentially more broadly damaging, authorities suggest.

“It does feed distrust in science,” says Wallace Broecker, a geochemist at Columbia University and an international dean of climate research. “Those who don’t believe in human-produced global warming grab onto it.”

West is at the nexus of almost all the evidence for the original comet claims. His fieldwork is described in the 2006 book he authored with Firestone, The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes.

To show the comet’s deadly plume, West collected various sediment samples from 25 archaeology sites across the United States. He used a magnet to find iron flecks reportedly from the comet, scooped up carbon spherules reflecting subsequent fires, and argued that high concentrations of such material at particular sedimentary levels supported their theory.

The team has argued a 4-kilometer comet tumbled into ice sheets 12,900 years ago, leading to the so-called Younger Dryas, when the temperature cooled for more than a thousand years.

The flying debris appeared to answer questions about the Clovis peoples’ disappearance that had defied prior explanation. The supposed remnants of the comet hadn’t received intense scrutiny by researchers previously probing sediments at archaeology sites. And water from melted ice flowing into the oceans could explain the precipitous temperature drop.

But all these claims have been sharply disputed in a series of scientific articles over the last 18 months. Examples include:

University of Wyoming archaeologist Todd Surovell and his colleagues couldn’t find increased magnetic spherules representing cosmic debris at seven Clovis sites. Nicholas Pinter and his colleagues at Southern Illinois University Carbondale argue the carbon spherules are organic residue of fungus or arthropod excrement. And Tyrone Daulton of Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues reported that supposed nanodiamonds formed by the impact were misidentified.

Speaking of the various reports, Surovell said, “We all built a critical mass of data suggesting there was a serious problem.”

Now, Boslough and colleagues have conducted new analysis of purported comet debris samples that raises even more troubling credibility questions.

On March 25, Boslough reported that radio-carbon dating of a carbon spherule sample shows it is only about 200 years old — an “irregularity” that indicates is it not from the alleged 12,900-year-old impact time.

This means that a sample from a layer purporting to show a high concentration of spherules at the inception of the Younger Dryas actually only was about as old as the Declaration of Independence.

About two years ago, as his doubts on the theory were building, Boslough contacted West to secure carbon spherule samples for analysis. West sent him 16 spherules, purportedly from the Younger Dryas boundary sediment layer at an archaeology site called Gainey in Michigan — a location with the highest spherule count of studied locations.

Boslough subsequently forwarded the unopened package of spherules to the National Science Foundation-funded radio-carbon laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There, a dating specialist randomly selected a spherule — the one ultimately found to be about 200 years old. Boslough reported these results at an American Geophysical Union conference in Santa Fe, N.M.

Afterward, Boslough said: “I don’t think there is any reason to accept what West reported. I have a serious problem with everything from him.”

Did someone salt a sediment layer to increase the spherule count? Or did the 200-year-old sample inadvertently get mixed in somehow? Boslough says he can’t provide an answer, but there was some form of “contamination.”

But an answer is needed, he said: “I wouldn’t sweep it under the rug.”

After his presentation, West wrote Boslough that he believed that the questioned sample somehow got mixed naturally over time into a lower sediment layer. Both Kennett and Firestone agreed.

But Vance Holliday, a University of Arizona archaeologist who has studied Clovis sites for 30 years, found this explanation nonsensical. Such mixing of spherules from different eras could invalidate any conclusion that higher spherule counts represented evidence of a comet impact.

“I suspect something very odd is going on,” adds Holliday, who also has become a critic of the comet theory.

After the theory was first announced in 2007 in Acapulco, Mexico, Holliday had attempted to collaborate with Kennett to test the idea. But Kennett effectively blocked publication of the study last year after the results didn’t support the comet theory.

And those results were blindly analyzed by an independent reviewer selected by Kennett himself. That independent reviewer was none other than Walter Alvarez — an esteemed University of California, Berkeley, geologist and son of Luis Alvarez, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who first proposed an asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico about 65 million years ago, wiping out the world’s dinosaurs and most life.

The Holliday-Kennett study has never been presented publicly. The results were obtained independent of the two authors. Holliday then agreed to discuss events; Kennett also answered questions about the study but didn’t reach the same conclusions as his colleague.

For decades, Holliday has studied a Clovis site at Lubbock Lake Landmark State Historical Park in Texas, just east of the original location where the Clovis people’s distinctive fluted projectile points were first discovered in New Mexico. After a visit there in the summer of 2007, Holliday examined sediments from an exposed section that included the signature of the inception of the Younger Dryas. He then took samples from six sedimentary layers within a 35-centimeter section encompassing the Younger Dryas.

The study then worked like this: Based on analyses of the layers, both Kennett and Holliday sent to Alvarez their predictions on which layer reflected the geochemical characteristics for the beginning of the Younger Dryas. But neither Kennett nor Alvarez knew the order of the sediment layers; not knowing this order would add credibility to their conclusions.

In a surprise, Kennett’s analysis included sedimentary counts for what he called nanodiamonds — which his group says were produced by the enormous energy from comet explosion.

Holliday accurately predicted what layer was associated with the Younger Dryas boundary. But Kennett did not. Kennett’s selected nanodiamond-rich layer was 25 centimeters above the Younger Dryas boundary — meaning it was about 1,000 years younger than the claimed impact time. To Alvarez, this indicated a comet-impact hypothesis was incorrect.

After considerable behind-the-scenes arguing, Holliday said, Kennett ultimately complained last summer that the study was “fundamentally flawed” and wouldn’t allow him to publish his results. Now, Kennett says, he is continuing to analyze the data.

“It is very peculiar,” Holliday said. “They propose an idea, a study contradicts it, then they criticize the scientists or the work.”

Both Kennett  and Columbia’s Broecker, are elected members of the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Science; near age peers, they are also old friends. Years ago, Broecker noted, Kennett published seminal discoveries on ancient climate shifts by studying cores drilled deep into the ocean floor.

Speaking graciously of Kennett, Broecker lauded his friend’s early climate studies as extremely important. But when the comet theory came along, Broecker immediately was highly skeptical. Kennett repeatedly called him to lobby for the comet until Broecker cut him off saying he didn’t want to hear about the theory anymore.

“It is all wrong,” said Broecker, if not “very likely total nonsense. But he never gives up on an idea.”

Kennett seems fixated on the Younger Dryas, Broecker added, “He won’t listen to anyone. It’s almost like a religion to him.”

Acknowledging the dispute, Kennett said, “I know he thinks I’m wrong; maybe he’ll change his mind someday.”

About 20 years ago, Broecker noted Kennett had proposed a similarly wayward theory that a burst of methane from the ocean floor — sometimes called “a methane gun” — warmed the climate, ending the Younger Dyras.

“He pushed the methane-gun theory for years,” said Broecker. “He predicted an enormous methane peak would be reflected in ice-core records. But there wasn’t one; it was a ridiculous idea to begin with.”

Then he switched to the beginning of the Younger Dryas, Broecker added, “He was determined to make a splash; it blinded his judgment.”

Ironically, he may be making a different type of impact with his odd-couple collaboration with West.

West has no formal appointment at an academic institution. He has said he obtained a doctorate from a Bible college, but he won’t describe it further. Firestone said West has told him he has no scientific doctorate but is self-taught. West’s Arizona attorney refers to him in writing as: “A retired geophysicist who has had a long and distinguished career.”

In the early 1990s, a new-age business West was involved in Sedona, Ariz., failed, and his well-drilling company went bankrupt. Then he ran afoul of California law in small Mojave Desert towns in a scheme with two other men, with court records saying they collected fees up to $39,500 for questionable groundwater reports.

He originally was charged with two felonies for falsely representing himself as a state-licensed geologist but agreed to a no contest plea to a single misdemeanor of false advertising as part of plea bargain in which state records say he was fined $4,500. Two other men in the scam also were sanctioned.

Acknowledging he made a mistake, West has sought to downplay the 9-year-old conviction. And last September, after his impact theory colleagues learned of it, he went back to court in Victorville, Calif., convincing a judge to void the old plea.

After earlier denying any impropriety with his Younger Dryas work, West declined a recent interview request. Last month, he wrote a letter charging it was “highly prejudicial and distorted” to bring up his legal past in the context of his current studies. He is a member of “a group of two dozen dedicated scientists performing cutting-edge, although controversial, research,” he wrote.

Initially last year, Kennett was speechless when confronted with West’s history. He and Firestone learned of it because of this reporter’s questions. Since then, he has continued to collaborate and publish research with West. Within weeks of learning of West’s background, Kennett pushed for news coverage last September of an article contending nanodiamonds in Greenland supported their comet theory. But the article didn’t sway critics.

Today, Kennett won’t discuss West’s criminal past at all — saying West is “wonderful, an absolutely remarkable researcher.” Firestone acknowledges West “did some strange things” but continues to defend that his work is above reproach.

Among the theory’s critics, there are decidedly differing opinions.

“This is so far beyond the pale — outside of normal experiences in conducting science — you can’t ignore it,” Southern Illiois’ Pinter said. Asked if he would collaborate with West, he said, “I would run screaming away.”

And the three years and research dollars spent on the claim leave a bitter memory for some. “My response is not publishable,” said Pinter.

Some academic institution needs to thoroughly examine the issue and answer the obvious questions that abound, critics say. Several said they already would have reported the events to administrators at their respective universities.

UCSB is the most likely institution to conduct a review, since Kennett used an NSF grant there on comet studies. But this will mean questioning an esteemed faculty member — Kennett — who is seen as having helped put the campus on the international scientific map.

Among those who believe a formal inquiry should be initiated to determine if there was any misconduct is Jeffrey Severinghaus, an isotopic chemist at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. An inquiry is the first level of such scrutiny; an investigation that could lead to sanctions would follow if the inquiry finds evidence of impropriety. Such probes have sniffed out questionable data from cases such as the rejected cold fusion claim and the false Korean assertion of cloning human embryos from stem cells.

“Wow,” said Severinghaus upon hearing of the latest developments in the comet theory, which he initially doubted because of his earlier ice-core studies. “It certainly sounds like there is sufficient evidence to justify an initial inquiry.”

Asked if he would seek such a move, he said, “Absolutely. It is really important to maintain the public trust in science. That means if there is a bad apple, it is rooted out and exposed.”

Bruce Hanley, UCSB’s director of research compliance, declined to be interviewed, although in an email he wrote that UCSB “is extremely interested in maintaining a high level of integrity” in research, and has a formal process for review of “unacceptable research practices.” Such a review is done confidentially.

Meanwhile, the next stop for the comet proponents’ road show is Bern, Switzerland. In July, they are scheduled to present research to a major international conference that studies the last 2.5 million years, the quaternary.

With many leading impact scientists in Europe equally skeptical of the theory, their welcome may be as icy as that period often was.

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Rex Dalton
Rex Dalton is a reporter based in San Diego. For more than 30 years, he has reported largely on scientific and medical issues, specializing in probing legal and ethical controversies. Assignments covering topics from biology to paleontology to anthropology have taken him to countries in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia, including Afghanistan.

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