The results were so unexpected, in fact, that the three scientists at first thought they had to be wrong. The amount of iridium in the Alvarez sample was more than three hundred times normal levels—far beyond anything they might have predicted. Over the following months Asaro and his colleague Helen Michel worked up to thirty hours at a stretch ("Once you started you couldn't stop," Asaro explained) analyzing samples, always with the same results. Tests on other samples—from Denmark, Spain, France, New Zealand, Antarctica—showed that the iridium deposit was worldwide and greatly elevated everywhere, sometimes by as much as five hundred times normal levels. Clearly something big and abrupt, and probably cataclysmic, had produced this arresting spike.
After much thought, the Alvarezes concluded that the most plausible explanation— plausible to them, at any rate—was that the Earth had been struck by an asteroid or comet.
The idea that the Earth might be subjected to devastating impacts from time to time was not quite as new as it is now sometimes presented. As far back as 1942, a Northwestern University astrophysicist named Ralph B. Baldwin had suggested such a possibility in an article in Popular Astronomy magazine. (He published the article there because no academic publisher was prepared to run it.) And at least two well-known scientists, the astronomer Ernst Opik and the chemist and Nobel laureate Harold Urey, had also voiced support for the notion at various times.